Adele has been a youth services librarian in public libraries for 20 years.
What Is Narrative Nonfiction?
“Narrative nonfiction” is a term for an increasingly popular technique for introducing children to the universe of facts. Simply put, it’s a way to get nonfiction information across by using the techniques of storytelling. Authors of narrative nonfiction will often introduce an actual person (perhaps an inventor or a zoologist) and narrate some kind of journey the person has taken, all the while teaching children a thing or two about the topic along the way.
By using a narrative structure (first this happened, then that, and that, and that), writers can bring nonfiction material to life and use many of the techniques of the storyteller: plot, characterization, dramatic tension, foreshadowing, etc.
Narrative nonfiction can provide children with information in a format that is familiar and interesting.
I've indicated a reading level and grade range for each of the books below. If you want more explanation of the reading levels, please see the note at the end of this article.
If You Are Looking for Even More Narrative Nonfiction
I have another article with 21 more narrative nonfiction titles, mostly published 2017-2018.
Narrative Nonfiction Books for Grades K-3
Most of these books are in a picture book format, with colorful illustrations that fill most of the page. Here you will find books about the inventor of instant ramen, an astronaut who paints pictures, a dog who received his own military jacket for going to WWI, and many others.
If you are looking for books for older children, keep scrolling down until you see the section for grades 3-6.
1. Magic Ramen: the Story of Momofuku Ando by Andrea Wang
Grades K-3. 40 pp. Published in 2019.
Packages of instant ramen noodles seem like something that have always existed, a constant on grocery store shelve. I imagine children will be fascinated to find out that they were actually invented, like any other food item, after concentrated work and experimentation.
Told in picture book format, Magic Ramenstarts with a man, Momofuku Ando,who walked through the rubble of Osaka, Japan after World War II. He saw the poor waiting in long lines to buy a bowl of high-priced ramen soup. He thought to himself, “The world is peaceful only when everyone has enough to eat.” And he decided he would spend his life making food.
In a series of illustrated panels, the book shows his process for finding the right combination of ingredients for making more nutritious noodles, ones that were not too crumbly or sticky or lumpy.
Once he had found the right balance for the noodles, he still had to figure out how to impart a soup flavor. Again, we have a series of panels that show his experimentation until he could get them to taste like soup when he added water.
His next challenge was to make them quick to prepare. He tried for months, but nothing worked. Then, he had a flash of inspiration when he saw his wife cooking tempura. He realized that the process of frying the noodles would create tiny holes in the noodles, allowing them to soak up hot water quickly and become soft. And after a year, instant ramen was born. The people were amazed and called it maho no ramen or “magic ramen.”
Interestingly, it took a while to catch on since it was initially more expensive that ramen from a stand. But once more people bought it, the price went down—and the rest is history.
It’s hard to imagine that illustrations could capture the exuberance of developing instant ramen, but Kana Urbanowicz’ drawings do the trick, setting the scenes and capturing the expressions of Ando and the people trying his ramen.
The back matter has a pronunciation guide and some more interesting information about Ando and his noodles, including the fact that a Japanese astronauts ate ramen in outer space aboard the US space shuttle Discovery in 2005. As the author notes. “Ando’s instant ramen is not only magic, it’s out of the world!”
2. The Astronaut Who Painted the Moon by Dean Robbins
AR Reading Level 3.4. Grades K-3. 40 pp. Published in 2019.
When I first saw this book, The Astronaut Who Painted the Moon, I did a little double-take, thinking, “Someone painted the moon?” Just for a second, I thought it meant painting the moon like you would paint a house. Funny, the moon still looked the same color to me.
Of course, the book is about Alan Bean, the astronaut who painted pictures of the moon after he had completed his mission of being on the second team to walk on the moon as part of the crew of Apollo 12.
The story starts with the astronauts blasting off. “Alan gazed out the window, marveling at the shapes and colors in space. The sky turned to black. The earth was a blue-and-white ball glowing in the darkness. The moon was many shades of gray.”
From there, we travel back to when Bean was a boy, dreaming about flying airplanes and later taking art classes and learning how to paint how things felt, rather than exactly how they looked.
After he returned from his moon voyage, he found that words weren’t enough to describe the beauty of the moon and photographs just made it look “a grim and gloomy place.” So, he started to paint. The text describes how he set up models and used lights to help him paint angles and shadows. It describes how he decided to add “real pieces of outer space” by stamping the paintings with astronaut boots and sprinkling on the moon dust from his spacesuit.
It’s worth perusing the internet to see more of Bean’s paintings. You can see the tread marks from the boots. I’d like to see one in person to see how the moon dust makes it look.
The back matter includes photos of his artworks, as well as more info about the life of Alan Bean. He is quoted as saying, “I think of myself not as an astronaut who paints, but as an artist who was once an astronaut.”
3. An Inconvenient Alphabet: Ben Franklin & Noah Webster’s Spelling Revolution by Beth Anderson
AR Reading Level 3.9. Grades 1-4. 48 pages. Published in 2018.
At first glance An Inconvenient Alphabet seems like it’s about ideas that didn’t work as Ben Franklin and Noah Webster tried to get people to spell English words phonetically. Franklin rightly concluded that English spelling makes no logical sense. To compound the problem, people back then would spell things the way they wanted. It was not uncommon for them to spell chair as chare or weather as wether.
To solve the problem, Ben came up with a system that threw out letters like c and x, and made some new letters for things like the ng or the th sound. Meanwhile, young Noah Webster was also frustrated with how people seemed to be writing and speaking different languages, though they all professed to be speaking English.
One day, a meeting of the minds happened and Webster and Franklin came up with a plan to spell phonetically. Unfortunately, the plan didn’t get much traction, probably because people were used to seeing things a certain way. If you look at the phonetically-spelled flyer in one of the book illustrations, you can see how different phonetic spelling is. Consider this sentence: “With wurds that ar eezeeyer to spel, reeding, writing, and speeking wil improov.” Tough to decipher, isn’t it? You can get it if you read it aloud, but it takes some effort.
By the time Ben Franklin died, the people of the US were no closer to standardized spelling than they were before. Finally, Webster had an idea: he published an American dictionary. People from all over the country started speaking and spelling more or less the same way, and believe it or not, that was quite an accomplishment.
Throughout, the author manages to make it a rollicking story about trying to get the country to change. Baddley’s illustrations continue that rollicking feel, playing around with perspective and motion to keep the story rolling along. See below for some examples of these pages.
It’s an enjoyable read that just might get literary-minded kids interested in etymology, the study of words.
4. Stubby: a True Story of Friendship by Michael Foreman
AR Reading Level 4.4. Grades K-3. 32 pp. Published in 2019.
In Stubby Michael Foreman tells the story of a dog who befriends a regiment of soldiers during
World War I and is smuggled aboard the ship when they are sent to the battlefield.
In brief prose, Foreman narrates the tale from the point of view of Corporal Robert Conroy, one of the soldiers who notices the dog in camp. “The smell of cooking seems to attract all the stray dogs from miles around. One dog in particular seems to find me every time I settle down to my sausage and potatoes. He is and odd little dog with a flat face and short legs. I decide to call him Stubby.”
The dog starts marching along with the soldiers and sitting up and begging for his food, and--as you can imagine--he lifts the morale of all the men in camp. When it’s time to ship out, the soldiers manage to smuggle him aboard the ship wrapped in a blanket.
Once the men are in the trenches, they learn how helpful it is to have a dog with them. Since he can hear better than the men, he can warn them when enemy soldiers are approaching. One night, he even caught a man spying and grabbed him by the seat of the pants and wouldn’t let him go.
Other times, Stubby’s keen sense of smell let the soldiers know that a gas attack was coming, and he warned the others. They would then fit gas masks on their faces—and on Stubby’s too. “He had become an important member of our company,” Conroy tells us.
The mood turns solemn the day Stubby is injured by an attack. “I’m sorry, old friend,” says Conroy. “I’m sorry I brought you to this stupid war.” The dog is hurt, but still alive, and the medics take him, bandage him like they did the wounded soldiers, and take him away in an ambulance. After six weeks, Stubby returns, recovered from his wounds. The local women make an army jacket for him.
In a war story with a happy ending, Stubby survives and returns to US with Conroy, participating in a victory parade and visiting two presidents, among other things.
Foreman writes the story in simple, straightforward prose, and the text is large for readers that are just beginning to read nonfiction. The gentle illustrations capture the mood of the settings both cheerful and somber.
5. Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Wallmark
AR Reading Level 4.7. Grades K-3. 44 pp. Published in 2017.
Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code is a thoroughly engaging story about the woman who "revolutionized computer coding." The story starts with an adult-aged Grace at her desk checking the computer code she has just written for Navy missiles. As she proofreads her work, she notices that she's had to write some of the same bits of code over and over again to do the same operation in different places. She hits on the idea of storing some common operations in the computer and calling them up when she needed them. "No one had ever done that before," the author tells us. "Grace was the first."
From there, we travel back in time to see Grace as a 7-year-old child taking apart all the clocks in the house to figure out how they worked and constructing elevators for her doll house. The story follows her as she grows up and takes a ride with a barnstormer, attends graduate school at Yale and teaches at Vassar. When WWII came along, she joined the Navy and worked on computer programs there. Students will be interested to learn that she documented the first "bug" in computer history--an actual moth that got stuck in the hardware of the computer she was using and blocked a switch. They will probably also be interested in the size of the computers in use at the time. The illustration shows one that takes up a whole room.
Perhaps Hopper's greatest contribution was to develop a language that used words in the English language instead of a series of 1's and 0's. "Why should people have to learn computer language?" she asked herself. "Why couldn't computers learn people language?"
Laid out in picture-book format with one or two paragraphs to a page, the book features upbeat full-page illustrations that capture her spirit. The illustrator has also sprinkled Hopper's quotes throughout. My favorite is "My motto is you see: The world will be a better place when all agree with me."
This is a book that can be easily read to a class in one sitting, a nice introduction to computer coding or STEM topics for girls.
6. Otis and Will Discover the Deep by Barb Rosenstock
AR Reading Level 3.6. Grades K-3. 48 pp. Published in 2018.
In picture book format Otis and Will Discover the Deep briefly recounts the story of Otis Barton and Will Beebe who built a spherical submersible device together in 1930 and descended 8,000 feet down into the ocean, the farthest humankind had ever been.
We start by learning a little about each man when they were young. Otis spent much of his childhood splashing in the Atlantic Ocean on his summer vacations. He even managed to fashion a wooden helmet connected to a bike pump so that he could stay underwater up to half an hour. The other man, Will, came to oceanography a bit later after first being a bird collector for the Bronx Zoo.
When the two of them got together, they worked together to design a metal sphere that could survive the ocean depths with just barely enough room for the two of them to fit inside.
From here, the suspense picks up as the two start to descend farther and farther down into the ocean. They had to deal with tangled lines, a small leak that might have been a portent of a blowout to come, and a searchlight cord that suddenly showered sparks, a frightening prospect in a machine carrying oxygen tanks. Here, the full-page, full-color illustrations take center stage, highlighting the tension by showing the swirling waters, the lonely dark depths, and the faces of the men in their tiny quarters as they descend to 800 feet.
Fortunately, their machine holds up, and they are rewarded by being the first to see the creatures in the deep ocean. The book conveys the vastness by using a 2-page spread at this point, the bathysphere a tiny illuminated point amongst a number of ghostly-looking creatures.
It's a fine introduction to early ocean exploration and includes four pages of back matter that tell more about the explorers, the art, and the research done for the book.
7. Lobos: a Wolf Family Returns to the Wild by Brenda Peterson
Grades K-3. 32 pp. Published in 2018.
Children will be drawn in by the wolf pup photos and appreciate the short brief text that accompanies them. Lobos: a Wolf Family Returns to the Wild follows a family of Mexican gray wolves from the time the wolf pup are born at a sanctuary in Washington state until they are re-settled in the high mountains of Mexico.
The text describes what is happening in brief sentences which have line breaks that make them read almost like poetry. The authors seem to have the aim of conveying the day-to-day lives of the wolves, rather than imparting a lot of detailed information. As such, it can almost be read more like a picture book story of an actual wolf family as they grow up and move from one place to the next.
To give you an idea of how the book is written, here are some sentences describing the pups’ time at the sanctuary. “The pups romp and run with Father Wolf, who teaches his pups how to howl together. Haunting harmonies. Wolf music!”
When it is time, the wolves are put in crates and flown to New Mexico where they spend some transitioning until they repeat the same process to their final destination in Mexico.
The wolves are frightened by these journeys: the new sights and sounds and smells, but they quickly adjust to their new homes.
Each page includes large color photos of the wolves, and though many of them look like snapshots, they convey the lives and surroundings of the wolves.
The back matter includes more information about the Mexican Wolf Survival Species Plan, a map of the wolves’ historical range, a timeline, web resources, and a “Wolf Facts” section. The latter provides some interesting tidbits, like the fact that the wolves’ sense of smell is 100 times better than a human’s.
8. Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpre by Amika Aldamuy Denise
AR Reading Level 4.0. Grades K-3. 36 pp. Published in 2019.
Using a picture book format, Planting Stories relates the life of Pura Belpre, the first Puerto Rican librarian in New York City.
Belpre had originally planned to be a teacher, but when an opportunity to move to the US mainland came along, she took it. After she was hired as a bilingual assistant at the New York Public Library, she learned that there weren’t actually any Spanish books in the library. She set to work telling folk tales she knew and creating colorful puppets to use at story time. She also published her own books in Spanish.
There is now a book award for Latinx literature named for her, and this book could be a good companion to read while introducing children to books by various Latinx writers.
The text is brief, only 4 or 5 lines on a page, sprinkled with a few words in Spanish. The illustrations have a charming folk art feel to them. The back matter includes an author’s note which goes into more detail about Belpre’s life, a list of resources, and some more detail about the folk tales mentioned in the book.
9. Brave Ballerina: The Story of Janet Collins by Michelle Meadows
AR Reading Level 3.2. Grades K-3. 32 pp. Published in 2019.
Brave Ballerina is a short, picture-book recounting of some of the main events in the life of Janet Collins, the first African-American prima ballerina with the Metropolitan Opera House.
Its style and lovely, large illustrations make it a good read-aloud for young children, since it would take less than five minutes to read.
In rhyming text, author Michelle Meadows describes Collins’ childhood learning to dance and having her seamstress mother make her costumes. “This is the girl,” it begins, “who danced in the breeze/to the swoosh, swoosh, swoosh/of towering trees. These are the costumes/ her dear mama made./ Costumes for lessons--/ that’s how they paid./ These are the pointe shoes/ shiny and pink/ small, quick steps--/ plink, plink, plink.”
The text recounts how she was told by one company that she could dance with them, but she would have to lighten her skin. She refused, but bounced back, and was eventually successful in her dreams to perform on stage.
The illustrations are large, colorful, and marvelous, conveying movement and grace. I especially like a 2-page progression showing Collins in a red Spanish dress.
The back matter includes an author’s note giving more information about Collins, and a list of sources and websites.
10. Hammering for Freedom by Rita Lorraine Hubbard
AR Reading Level 4.6. Grades K-3. 32 pages. Published in 2018.
Hammering for Freedom tells the story of an enslaved man, William “Bill” Lewis, born in the early 1800’s, who worked to buy his family’s way out of slavery. When he was young, he learned to be a blacksmith and the plantation owner would sometimes let him keep the extra money he made fashioning metal items for other people.
Lewis hit on the creative idea of asking the owner to let him “rent” himself, and then charge others for the work he did The owner agreed, saying that if he paid $350 to rent his freedom, he could keep whatever else he made. (I looked on the internet to find out what that amount would be in today’s dollars, and found it would be roughly equal to $8,900 today.)
Hubbard tells this story in picture book format with full-page color illustrations and 2 or three paragraphs on the facing page. Illustrator John Holyfield captures Lewis’ dignity and hard work as well as showing details of the surroundings in the 19th-century American South.
The book is positive and hopeful, and ends with a portrait of the extended family that Lewis managed to free from slavery.
The back matter includes an Afterword with more details about Lewis’ life and a source list.
11. The World is Not a Rectangle: a Portrait of Architect Zaha Hadid by Jeanette Winter
AR Reading Level 4.7. Grades K-3. 56 pp. Published in 2017.
The World is Not a Rectangle sent me to the internet to look up some of Hadid’s actual buildings in the world. Some of them seem to defy logic (and physics, so different from the boxy buildings we are used seeing.)
Author and illustrator Jeanette Winter keeps things simple and poetic in this profile of an Iraqi woman architect. Each page has swirling artwork and a single sentence about the progression of Hadid’s career, making it a sort of illustrated prose poem.
She begins, “In Iraq, rivers flow through green marshes,” and we see three men navigating small boats through the water. On the next page we read, “Wind swoops across sand dunes and through ancient cities.” Here we see a large bird flying over a swirl of sand and small palm trees. On the next two pages, Winter tells us. “Zaha Hadid sees the river and marshes and dunes and ruins with her father and imagines what cities looked like thousands of years ago.”
We learn that Hadid “dreams of designing her own cities,” and after she has completed her schooling, she opens her own office. She enters her swooping design in a number of contests, but when she finally wins, the city committee finds it too radical and won’t build it.
Hadid keeps on designing, and apparently quite a few of her designs were eventually built: towers and stadiums and opera houses. Eventually, she assembles a firm with over four hundred architects. She designs other things, like dollhouses and sculptures, and seats that look like icebergs.
The book takes us through the end of her life and tell us “…her architects keep their lights on—designing, planning, engineering, and making models of her visions, keeping her flame blazing bright. Even though Zaha is gone.”
The back matter includes the names and locations of her most notable work (which is how I was able to look them up on the ‘net), includes more information about Hadid, and a list of sources.
12. Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines by Jeanne Walker Harvey
AR Reading Level 4. Grades K-3. 32 pp. Published in 2017.
When I first visited the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, D.C., what struck me was how reflective the surface was. All of those who come to see, to think, to grieve, see themselves reflected back in the monument to the people who lost their lives in this war.
One of my brothers-in-law was nine years old when he lost his father, a fighter pilot, in January of 1967. I didn’t know the brother-in-law very well and had of course never met his father, but it was still moving to go to the section where his name was and make a rubbing of his name, to think of a man who never lived beyond the age of 31 and of all he never had a chance to do or be.
This book, Maya Lin, tells the story of a college woman, a daughter of immigrants from China, who entered a competition to design that memorial and won. She was 21 years old. It was a blind competition, meaning that the judges didn’t know her name or anything about her. When people found out that such a young woman won, there was some resistance, especially since her memorial was not a traditional type with statues of men in heroic acts.
Her story is told in picture book format with large illustrations and one or two paragraphs per page. We learn how Lin was a keen observer of nature as a child, and that her father was a clay artist and her mother was a poet. In one particularly dramatic 2-page spread, we see a view from above of Lin looking up at the columns in the Yale library. “One day when Maya looked at the patterns of light and lines on the ceiling of her college library, she imagined she would become an architect who created buildings with art, science, and math.”
The story tells about the contest and how she stood strong in the face of criticism. It goes on to talk a little about the projects she has done since then. Be sure to look them up to see other interesting buildings, art installations and memorials she has designed.
The author’s note at the back gives some more information on Lin’s life.
13. Shark Lady by Jess Keating
AR Reading Level 3.9. Grades 1-4. 30 pp. Published in 2017.
Shark Lady tells the story of Eugenie Clark, a woman born in 1922 who became a zoologist and spent most of her career studying sharks. Using the picture book format, Keating describes Clark's childhood interest in aquariums and sharks. She makes a special point to let us know that others thought Clark should become a secretary or housewife, but she went to college, one woman among many men, and earned a doctorate in zoology.
She talks about how Clark knew that "Sharks were not mindless killers. Sharks were beautiful. Sharks were smart. They deserved to be studied, ...protected, ...and loved." In her author’s note, Keating tells us she could not fit all that she knew about Clark into one short book, but she does highlight some of Clark’s significant discoveries, including how she went about debunking the idea that sharks need to keep moving to keep oxygen going past their gills. (On one of her dives, she came across a number of resting sharks in a cave and proving that they don’t need to keep moving to get oxygen.) She was also able to train sharks to do things like press a button for food.
The bright, charming pictures provide much of the appeal of this book. I especially like one in which Eugenie Clark is standing next to a huge model of shark teeth, deciding to prove everyone wrong about their true nature.
The back matter includes some interesting facts about sharks, a timeline of Clark's life and a bibliography of sources.
Narrative Nonfiction for Grades 3-6
Here you will find books about a naturalist who lets things sting him on purpose, the adventurous life of George Washington, and the women who invented all kinds of things we use every day, among other fascinating stories.
If you are looking for books for younger children, scroll up until you see the section for grades K-3.
14. The King of Sting by Coyote Peterson
Grades 4-6. 208 pages. Grades 3-6. Published in 2018.
Oh, what YouTube has wrought! In the quest for views for his nature show, Peterson hit on an idea that was a sure-fire formula for upping views and engagement.
Unfortunately, it also meant that he had to go out and get stung by all manner of things.
In each chapter of The King of Sting (about 15 pages), he tells the story of how he decided on each thing that would sting him, details how he went about being stung, and then describes the aftermath. It’s the kind of narrative that makes you think “This guy is crazy,” but more importantly, you’re thinking “What did he do next?”
Strangely, the whole thing didn’t start with a stinging insect, but rather a porcupine. Peterson came up with idea of letting it quill him, and then posting it on YouTube, along with procedure of getting the quills out. I now know the best way to deal with porcupine quills, and I’ll let you in on the secret: first you have to cut the tips off with a wire cutter. The quills are pressurized with air and will keep digging into your skin, otherwise. Then, gently twist them to flatten their barbs and pull them out. Peterson also includes some other interesting things about porcupines, like the fact that they have trigger hairs which stimulate the quilling reflex if touched.
There you have a template for each chapter: readers come for the descriptions of stinging and pain, and they stay around a little bit and learn some things about nature. Peterson insists he does this because he thinks these creatures are so awesome. I leave it to you to decide if the book makes you more interested in learning about them, or more interested in going to another nonfiction book where someone isn’t swelling up in pain on a regular basis.
Peterson is certainly willing to suffer for his art. After the porcupine, he moves on to carpenter ants, fire ants, scorpions, and a variety of wasps and bees.
Peterson does have a good, immediate way of telling a story, and he includes lots of pictures of the creatures and the damage they inflict, though most of the photos are snapshot quality. The layout is inviting, and he includes numerous snippets of facts set off in colorful boxes apart from the rest of the text. I can certainly imagine a child discovering this book, and a crowd gathering around, talking about the pictures and creating a hubbub over what he decided to do next.
15. George Washington! (Action Presidents #1) by Fred Van Lente
Grades 3-6. 128 pp. Published in 2018.
When is US history more action-packed and humorous? When it’s presented as a graphic novel, of course. (Sign on the cover: Real history! Fake jokes!)
Don’t tell the kids, but they’ll actually learn quite a bit of sophisticated history from this cartoon version of the military and political career of George Washington. Most children will know that he was the first president and “father of our country” but his story is much less stuffy than the stiff portrait on the one-dollar bill would lead you to believe.
George Washington! (Action Presidents #1) starts with George’s childhood learning to be a “proper English gentleman.” Here, the author has chosen some of the more relevant “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior” that young George had to copy out word for word, and illustrator Ryan Dunlavey has included some raucous, kid-pleasing illustrations to convey the point. “Spit not in the fire” is pretty self-explanatory, and we see a cartoon illustrating this (wrong) behavior. When the rule says “Gaze not on the marks or blemishes of others and ask not how they came,” Dunlavey illustrates what not to do with a young George pointing to the face of a boy with an enormous zit and saying “Dude! What’s wrong with your face?!”
From there, we see George as a young man heading for adventure by going out west and working as a surveyor, where he “learned to live in the wild, brave dangerous animals, and befriend Native Americans.”
By the time he was 21, he had such a good reputation as a frontiersman that the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia sent him on a mission to find the best place to build a fort to defend their land interests. From there on, he was launched into a military career which had quite a few fits and starts to begin with. In the Battle of Fort Necessity, Washington was not able to defend a fort which he had built within range of the high ground nearby. One of the cartoon panels shows him riding his horse out of the fort, his men marching behind him. His thought balloon says, "Ugh...my first military engagement and I surrender! There goes that career." However, we learn that his fellow American considered him a hero. "One of their own had struck against the enemy, held out against a much larger French force, and brought most of his men back home alive."
The story continues through the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, and Washington's two terms as president. Together, Van Lente and Dunlavey manage to make concepts like "taxation without representation" understandable—and, at times, humorous. They also get across how important it was for Washington to lead the new country, but it was equally important for him to resist becoming a head of state with king-like powers, and most importantly to step down after two terms.
I have to admit that I'd always known that Washington crossing the Delaware was a big deal, but I never knew why until I read this book. Books like this give me hope that kids will learn that history is not a set of boring facts, but stories that tell us where we as a people have been and how we got here.
16. Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women by Catherine Thinmesh
AR Reading Level 7.4. Grades 4-8. 57 pp. Revised in 2018.
Girls Think of Everything, a collection of the stories of a variety women inventors, works quite nicely as a “read-straight-through” kind of book, or as a nonfiction resource for a report.
Thinmesh’s style is conversational and engaging. For her first subject, she picks an invention that is sure to draw readers into the book: the chocolate chip cookie. “It was an accident. A simple mistake,” she tells us. “A last-minute effort to save time. A Just-toss-it-in-and-it-will-all-work-out sort of gesture…but it led to Ruth Wakefield’s creation of the crunchy, chewy, oh-so-delicious chocolate chip cookie.” That Toll House Cookie recipe you see on the back of a bag of Nestle’s chocolate chips? That’s her recipe, which came about when she was trying to make chocolate drop cookies.
The other examples continue on with a little more scientific bent. Thinmesh profiles two Columbia graduate students who developed a sturdy, portable solar light, an Egyptian woman who figured out how to turn plastic into fuel, and a South African woman who figured out how to combat drought with orange and avocado peels. Along the way, you’ll also encounter women who invented windshield wipers, Kevlar, an alarm that will tell you if you left your infant in the car, the computer compiler, an anti-bullying app, a paper bag folding machine, laser surgery for cataracts, a space bumper, Scotchguard, the Snugli, and an engineering toy for girls.
It’s an eclectic mix of short profiles (2-6 pages) with spare watercolors illustrations picturing each of the women.
17. Unstoppable: How Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team Defeated Army by Art Coulson
AR Reading Level 4.7. Grades 4-6. 40 pp. Published in 2018.
Unstoppable: How Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team Defeated Armyhas an unusual take on the life of the great Native American athlete: it focuses on his football career, rather than his track career for which he won two gold medals at the 1912 Olympics.
Thorpe’s story is told in a picture book format with large pages, 2 or 3 paragraphs on each page, and lots of full-page illustrations. At the beginning, we are introduced to him as a boy, a Native American who liked to hunt, fish, and ride horses. Some attention is paid to how the Native American children were treated at the time: their hair was cut, their traditional clothes were burned, and they were prohibited from speaking their languages. When he was 16, Thorpe’s sent him to Carlisle Industrial School where he hoped his son would learn a trade.
He soon came to the football coach’s attention when he showed up in his heavy farm work boots and joined the athletes in high jump. He gave it a shot, and broke the school’s high jump record of five feet nine inches.
From then on, he played all kinds of sports, but had to wait until he was bigger to convince the coach to let him play varsity football.
A child who is into football will enjoy the descriptions of how Carlisle played its games. They focused on quicker players with lots of unusual plays and sometimes trick plays. Even though Army was favored to win, Thorpe and the rest of the Native American team kept them on their heels, and they won 27-6.
It’s a moving story that will introduce children to a stellar athlete from long ago. The back matter includes a photo of Thorpe, as well as more information on his life. I didn’t know he was the first president of the association now known as the NFL. There are also short descriptions of Pop Warner and the Carlisle Industrial School as well as a glossary and lists for further reading and researching.
18. When We Walked on the Moon by David Long
Grades 2-5. 80 pp. Published in 2019.
In When We Walked on the Moon author David Long and illustrator Sam Kalda combined their talents to produce this large-format book (9” X 12”) that includes enough factoids to occupy space geeks while giving an overall narrative of the massive undertaking that was the space program.
At 80 pages, this book has enough text and facts to satisfy kids who are looking for material for a report, yet it has a wealth of illustrations--some of them double-page spreads--to keep young readers engaged.
As of this writing, it’s the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. I’ve been reading and watching quite a few things about that time period, and yet I still learned more from reading this book. The author has a sense of the details that would be interesting to children, and he packs quite a bit of information into his prose.
He begins, “More than 5,000 rockets have been blasted into space, but only twelve people have ever been lucky enough to walk on the moon and look up at earth. Getting them to the moon and back was the single most expensive project the world had ever seen [we later find out that each minute on the surface equaled $22 million spent], and a tremendous feat of human engineering. More than 400,000 men and women worked to make the trips to the moon, named the Apollo missions, successful.”
I kept a list of some of the details that particularly interested me:
- To make drinking water, the astronauts used a fuel cell that combined hydrogen and oxygen to make the water which they squeezed into their mouths from a bag
- Astronaut helmets had a small piece of rough material inside that they could rub their noses against if they became itchy
- Charles Conrad and Dick Gordon made so much noise laughing and joking once they were on the moon that “Mission Control had to tell them to quiet down.”
- Astronauts wrote lists on their sleeves of the different steps in the scientific experiments they performed.
- The space suit and gear that the astronauts wore on the moon weighed about 180 pounds.
- David Scott dropped a feather and a hammer together on the moon. They landed at the same time, proving Galileo’s hypothesis right.
The author also describes the emotional reactions of the men who walked on the moon. Buzz Aldrin described it as “magnificent desolation.” One astronaut was seized with an urge to take off his helmet, the better to experience the place—though he wisely kept his helmet on. Edgar Mitchell felt a “strange nostalgia” for this world. “…he was left with a powerful feeling that in some mysterious way the moon had been waiting silently for millions of years just to welcome its first few human visitors.”
19. Little Dreamers: Visionary Women Around the World by Vashti Harrison
Grades 3-5. 90 pages. Published in 2018.
Little Dreamers is a perfect book to have on hand when children need to write a short report about an influential person in history, especially if they are looking for an influential woman.
In her introduction, author Vashti Harrison tells us “The women in this book looked at things differently. They saw things that no one else did. They asked questions no one else was asking. And they chose to do something about it.”
The book covers the lives of 38 different women who each get a 1-page summary of their accomplishments. On the facing page, there is a full page illustration of each woman in the smiling, round-faced folk art style you see on the cover. Each illustration includes dress, items, and a background that depicts her interests and accomplishments. For example, Frida Kahlo (with her trademark eyebrows) wears a traditional-style Mexican dress, has a profusion of flowers in her hair, holds an artist’s palette, and stands in front of a green background with depiction of leaves and small animals.
You’ll find many well-known women here, like Kahlo, Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie and Tony Morrison. But, you’ll also find others like Bessie Blount Griffin, an African-American woman and physical therapist who came up with a variety of inventions to help her patients, or Asima Chatterjee, and organic chemist who helped to formulate anti-epilepsy and anti-malarial drugs. Harrison worked to find women of many heritages and nationalities here.
The text is conversational, making each section a brief, pleasant read.
20. Apollo 8: The Mission that Changed Everything by Martin W. Sandler
AR Reading Level 8.2. Grades 4-8. 159 pp. Published in 2018.
There were over a dozen missions leading up to the one in which the Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the moon, and Apollo 8: The Mission that Changed Everything argues that the mission to orbit the moon is what changed everything. It showed, among other things, that the Saturn 5 rocket would indeed launch a spacecraft, and that it was possible for the astronauts inside to make the precise adjustments needed to leave earth’s orbit, move into the moon’s orbit, and then make it back to earth safely again, all prerequisites for actually landing on the moon.
Kids who like learning about space and astronauts will appreciate the depth in this large-format book that runs about 150 pages. Despite its length, Sandler keeps the text from dragging by emphasizing the narrative structure and including interesting facts all along the way.
For example, he gets across the daunting size of the Saturn V rocket: the valves were so large that you couldn’t pick them up by hand; instead, you had to get a forklift to handle them. The tower for the rocket actually made its own weather. They had to install fans to keep the warm, moist Florida air from condensing at the top and raining on the structure.
Throughout the narrative, Sandler emphasizes the teamwork (hundreds of thousands of people worked on some aspect of the mission), the danger (some calculated there was only a 50/50 chance of succeeding), and the hard work of the astronauts.
He also doesn’t neglect the more philosophical aspects of the mission, recording each astronaut’s thoughts on seeing the moon, and especially the earth as it rose over the horizon. He also describes the process by which the commander, Frank Borman, decided to read from the beginning of Genesis in his broadcast back to earth.
For some context, the book provides extra sections, 2-3 page segments which describe the history of rocketry, the tumultuous events of 1968, ideas and stories about the moon, and an exploration of how certain photos define their times, among others.
Speaking of photos, the book’s creators have wisely chosen to reproduce the iconic photo, Earthrise (which shows our blue planet above the surface of the moon) in a 2-page full-color spread without any additional text. It’s a dramatic photo for dramatic times.
The book includes a number of high-quality photos that should help children connect images with the information they are reading. They include: the three Apollo 8 astronauts suited up, rockets launching, close-ups of the moon, and the mission control center.
The epilogue describes later missions, and the back matter includes source notes, a bibliography, and an index.
A Note About Reading Levels
The reading leveling system I’ve chosen is Accelerated Reading, also known as AR Reading Level (also ATOS).
The AR Reading Levels are numbers that take into account things like sentence level of vocabulary and correspond roughly to g