This book list was inspired by a recent post at Kid Lit Frenzy, the wonderful blog that hosts the annual nonfiction picture book challenge. After a professional development presentation on using nonfiction picture books as mentor texts and a follow-up blog post, Alyson received many requests for lists of recommended books from teachers. She didn’t provide a list, because there really isn’t one list of nonfiction picture books that’s right for every classroom and library. As teachers, librarians, readers, writers, we need to be reading, always, and discovering the texts that will work best for us and for our students. Still, my brain loves book lists, and I couldn’t help starting one in my head: which ten nonfiction picture books would I recommend as a starter kit for teachers of grades, say, K-16? Let’s be ambitious! I want books that can be shared successfully with kindergartners AND college students.
What does a starter kit need? Representative titles that show the range and diversity of this genre. Books to read independently. Books to read together. Funny books. Serious books. A range of illustration styles. Books to teach writing. Books to teach research. Most of all, books to invite wonder and much more #booklove. I wanted to be sure to select prolific authors and illustrators for this list. And I’d love to know in the comments what texts you’d include in your starter kit!
Henry’s Freedom Box. If readers aren’t full of wonder and amazement after reading the unlikely story of Henry Brown, a slave who actually mailed himself north to freedom in a box, you should probably give up on them because they’re hopeless. Ellen Levine’s text is well-written, and Kadir Nelson’s illustrations sublime. Follow up with another title about the Underground Railroad beautifully illustrated by Kadir Nelson, Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom.
Poop: A Natural History of the Unmentionable. Poop is really for older readers, but it would make a fine read-aloud in short sections for younger kids. And how can the subject matter not appeal, especially if you teach, say, 5th-grade boys? But even dainty squeamish me found myself oddly obsessed with poop while reading this book. I nearly drove my husband crazy when I was reading it—interrupting him to share fascinating poop fact after fascinating poop fact. Neal Layton’s illustrations are full of goofy humor, and Davies has an eye for memorable details. Although anyone who teaches 5th-grade boys knows that poop is funny, it turns out that it’s also very useful and important. Nicola Davies has collaborated with Neal Layton on several books about animal science, and she’s also written dozens of picture books for younger readers about animals and nature.
Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin. Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet are an author-illustrator team who are responsible for several of my all-time favorite nonfiction picture books, including this year’s Caldecott Honor, The Right Word. But the book that would be in my starter kit is A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin. Pippin loved art as a child and was always drawing. As a grown man, he was injured during World War I and returned home with a physical disability as well as post-traumatic stress disorder. He couldn’t lift his arm, yet he determined to teach himself to draw and paint again, partly as a way to make sense of and work through his emotions about war.
The Animal Book With The Animal Book, I feel like I’m cheating just a little bit, because this isn’t your typical 32-page picture book. This is a 200+ page bonanza of a book with so much to look at and ponder on each page. Steve Jenkins has written and illustrated dozens of superb nonfiction books about animals and the natural world.
Wilma Unlimited. You might know that Wilma Rudolph broke records and won three Olympic gold medals. But did you know that she had polio when she was a little girl and was told she’d never walk anymore? Kathleen Krull shares the unlikely story of Rudolph’s incredible athletic success in Wilma Unlimited. It also turns out that Rudolph was inspirational off the track too: I appreciated learning about her later life as well.
Parrots Over Puerto Rico. Cindy Trumbore and Susan Roth share the story of an important environmental success in the award-winning Parrots Over Puerto Rico, which describes the efforts of the Parrot Recovery Program to save the nearly-extinct Puerto Rican parrot. Trumbore’s text conveys a tremendous amount of information clearly and simply, and Susan Roth’s cut-paper collage illustrations are just about the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.
Viva Frida has barely any words and you don’t find out much about Frida Kahlo’s life, but that’s not really the point. You read Viva Frida for inspiration, not information. Morales’s puppet art and dreamy words convey a spirit of imagination and creativity.
Dizzy. Dizzy Gillespie was a great musician as well as a high-spirited rule-breaker. Jonah Winter’s lively text brings Gillespie’s story to life, and I love Sean Qualls’s colorful art. Winter has written a number of excellent picture book biographies, and Qualls’s work for two more nonfiction books, Before John Was a Jazz Giant and The Case for Loving, is so strong.
A Rock Is Lively. Really, any of the nature titles written by Diana Hutts Aston and illustrated by Sylvia Long is worthy of inclusion in the nonfiction starter kit, but I’m especially fond of A Rock Is Lively. I never thought much about rocks one way or the other until I read this book and now it’s hard not to think of them as, yes, lively. Aston’s writing is pure poetry, and Long’s illustrations are museum-worthy.
Buried Sunlight. A book that explains what fossil fuels are, how they’re made, and why we’re changing our earth with our overreliance on them in language that’s engaging for a college professor and comprehensible to a preschooler? That’s quite a feat. Penny Chisholm honors the complexity of her topic but provides astonishingly clear explanations, and Molly Bang’s art, which I’m not usually the biggest fan of, seems really well-suited to illustrating complicated processes and conveying information.