Best Narrative Nonfiction Books for Kids
Why Narrative Nonfiction for Kids?
When I was in elementary school, the teachers emphasized reading fiction books, and I ate it all up, starting with the exploits of Dick and Jane and moving on to books like Johnny Tremain and Charlotte’s Web.
On the other hand, when my husband was a boy, he disdained the lady who wanted him to read about a mouse riding a motorcycle and instead chose to read nonfiction books about Hannibal crossing the Alps with his elephants, or an informational book called Fish Do the Strangest Things.
Back then, the teachers prized my kind of reading and tolerated my husband’s nonfiction. Today, the tables are turned.
The new Common Core State Standards for our nation’s schools emphasize reading nonfiction, especially narrative nonfiction, to develop student’s skills in understanding and analyzing informative texts.
What Is Narrative Nonfiction?
Most of us are familiar with what is called “expository nonfiction.” These are the texts that explain the Bill of Rights or describe the planets of the solar system.
But what, exactly, is narrative nonfiction? Simply put it’s a text that gets factual information across in a form that uses many of the elements of storytelling. An author of narrative nonfiction will typically introduce an actual character (perhaps a baseball player or a baby polar bear at the zoo), and narrate some sort of experience or journey that character has taken, all the while teaching kids a thing or two about history or zoology along the way.
By using a narrative structure (first this happened, then that, and that, and that), writers can relate nonfiction material using many of the techniques of the storyteller: characterization, dramatic tensions, foreshadowing, etc.
Narrative nonfiction provides kids with information--in a format that is interesting to them.
Narrative Nonfiction for Kids in Primary School, Grades K-3
Check this section if you are looking for narrative nonfiction for the younger set.
New! The Marvelous Thing That Came from a Spring
Grades K-3, 40 pages, 2016
It was a toy that took the US by storm in 1945, but like many other inventions, it started as somewhat of an accident. Back in 1943, Richard James had been assigned to invent something that would keep the Navy's fragile equipment from vibrating in rough seas. He was working with springs, and one day when he knocked a torsion spring off a shelf, it seemed to "walk" instead of fall. He took it home to his son, who was able to walk the spring down from the top of the stairs. Richard and his wife, Betty, decided it would make a great toy.
Anyone who's been in the business world knows it's not as simple as having a good idea. The author, Gilbert Ford, does a nice job of showing the next steps in the process. Betty searched the dictionary trying to find just the right name for their new toy. (Can you see a companion activity for the kids? Developing toys and then looking for just the right name?) Richard went to the bank to get a loan to have 400 Slinkys made. And then, Richard went on the road to try to sell his idea, but toy sellers were skeptical. Finally, he persuaded the manager at the Gimbels department store to let him demonstrate it during the holiday season.
There rest is history. The Slinky walked down the ramp and the store sold out of all 400 units that night. When the postwar boom happened, the toy's popularity skyrocketed. Ford lets us know a little more about how Richard and Betty managed the business. Richard invented a machine which could manufacture their toy much faster and Betty kept the phones and paperwork humming. The author's note at the end includes some more interesting tidbits: it was launched into space on Discovery and has inspired a magician. We also find out a little about what happened to Richard and Betty. He went to do missionary work in Bolivia and she took over the business, which was nearly bankrupt by that time and built it again into a thriving concern.
I love Ford's illustrations, a blend of paper cut-outs and actual objects that portrays the period and the tone perfectly. This picture-book account of the "marvelous thing that came from a spring" will be one that the children will love choosing for their narrative nonfiction assignment.
New! Ada's Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay
The story follows a girl, Ada Rios who “grew up in a town made of trash.” The people of the town eke out a living by living in the landfill and scavenging items to sell. In her Author’s Note, Hood tells us that the people there work 14-hour days, and most of them live on less than two dollars per day.
Enter Favio Chavez, and environmental engineer who went to teach the people safer practices for working in the garbage. When he saw the children who worked there alongside their parents, he decided to offer music lessons. Ada was one of the children who went the first day, along with nine others. But Chavez only had three guitars and two violins, not enough for the children to take home and practice with. And, even if they had each had an instrument, it wouldn’t be safe to be carrying around a relatively expensive instrument that was worth more than the houses.
Chavez hit on the idea of making instruments from the trash all around them. He and some of the fellows in the neighborhood fiddled around with materials until they had workable instruments. I love the author’s use of language, “They transformed oil drums into cellos, water pipes into flutes, and packing crates into guitars!”
After lots of practice, the children had an orchestra that has been asked to travel around the world and play.
I can see music teachers, as well as classroom teachers, finding a place for this in their lessons. It would lend itself well to a unit on designing instruments from found objects. The author’s note contains a wealth of additional information, as well as a list of websites and videos that include a 60 Minutes piece and footage of their performance opening with the band Metallica. The collage illustrations give a real sense of life in the town and help readers to see what the instruments were like.
One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia
AR 2.9 2015 36 pages Ages 6-9
combines learning about Africa, recycling, and women's cooperatives. It is the story of Isatou Ceesay, who noticed that the trash was piling up in her town in Gambia and wished that something could be done to clean them up. When she sees a friend crocheting, she realizes that she can crochet the bags into purses to sell at the market. One Plastic Bag
Soon, many women joined in to make purses and make money for their families and their town. The author's note fills in more of the details and tells us the whole town is doing better because of the recycling project. there are one or two paragraphs per page, and the large and colorful illustrations blend paint and photographs.
Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla
AR 3.7 2014 40 pages Ages 3-8
Applegate wrote the touching Newbery-winning novel The One and Only Ivan, and in this non-fiction picture book, , she tells about the life of the gorilla who inspired her book. Ivan was captured in the Congo in 1962 and taken to the B & I Circus store in 1962. At first, he lived in the home of a family who opened the pet store (he especially liked fried chicken and swinging from curtains), but when he grew too big, he was moved to and enclosure that was only 14X14 feet. In the 1990’s people began to agitate for him to be moved to a better home, and in 1994 he joined the gorillas at Zoo Atlanta. Applegate’s text is spare and evocative, and Karas’ illustrations aptly capture the emotions of the story. Ivan
Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh
Grades K-3 32 pages 2015
If you have any children who were Winnie-the-Pooh fans when they were little (or still are!), is the narrative nonfiction book for them. It’s a book that tells the story of the original Winnie, a bear who accompanied Canadian veterinary surgeon Harry Colebourne to military training in England during World War I. Winnie
The book has delightful illustrations reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting that show the little bear, named Winnipeg after the city, searching for biscuits in Henry’s pockets, sleeping under his bunk, attempting to climb the tent pole.
When Henry had to go to the battlefield in France, he decided that Winnie should stay in the new bear habitat at the London Zoo. The bear was so gentle that the zoo allowed children to ride him and feed him. One little boy was so entranced that he talked about Winnie all the way home. That boy went by the name of Christopher Robin Milne. When he snuggled with his teddy that night, he insisted the stuffed bear needed to be renamed. And thus was born the books about the hundred-acre wood.
The story is in picture book format with one or two paragraphs per page.
The Streak: How Joe DiMaggio Became America's Hero
AR 4.0 Grades K-3 32 pages 2014
is a concise and tightly focused narrative that centers on Joe DiMaggio’s streak of hits in 56 consecutive games during the summer of 1941, right before the US entered WWII . The author credits The Steak, during which the country joined together to cheer for this immigrant kid who grew up working on the San Francisco Wharf, for creating a unity of spirit which benefitted the US once it entered the wharf. From the author’s note, we learn that hitting a ball from a pitcher in the pros is considered “the single hardest activity in sports.” Statisticians have calculated that at streak like this could only happen every 746 to 18,519 years. In short, DiMaggio did what was practically impossible. Kids who like baseball will enjoy learning about this unusual and inspiring event. The story is told in picture-book format, with large illustrations that have a somewhat impressionistic style. The Streak: How Joe DiMaggio Became America's Hero
Kali's Story: An Orphaned Polar Bear Rescue
AR 4.2 Grades K-3 32 p 2014
is notable for its numerous high-quality photos which show the stages of Kali’s life from the time he was rescued, and his adventures at the Alaska Zoo until he was placed at the zoo in Buffalo, New York . There is nothing quite so cute as a baby polar bear, and children get to see little Kali drinking from his bottle, playing with his stuffed animal and taking naps in the snow. The text is very brief, only a line are two on many of the pages. Kali's Story: An Orphaned Polar Bear Rescue
The book contains quite a bit of information about polar bears in the back matter, making it useful for a short report on polar bears.
Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation
AR 5.1 Grades K-3 40 pages 2014
Right before Sylvia Mendez entered 3rd grade in 1944, her aunt took her and her two brothers to register at the local school. She was told that the children would have to enroll in the local “Mexican school,” even though they were American citizens and could speak English fluently. The school they were sent to consisted of a shed in a cow pasture and substandard teachers. Unlike the “regular school,” it didn’t have wide, clean halls or playground equipment. This book makes the struggle for school desegregation relatable to children and tells the story of an important case that set the stage for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling which struck down the concept of “separate but equal” schooling. includes large illustrations and 2 to 3 short paragraphs per page. Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation
The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever
AR 4.8 Grades K-3 32 pages 2013
Kate Sessions started out as a teacher when she arrived in San Diego in 1883, but she soon turned to horticulture, searching for a variety of drought-resistant plants and encouraging the locals to plant trees., This book tells the story of how she went from scientifically-minded young girl to the “Mother of Balboa Park,” the lush city center that hosted the Panama-California Exposition in 1915. Jill McElmurry’s full-page illustrations are charming, and the short blocks of text will entice young or reluctant readers.
Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman
AR 5.8 Grades K-3 32 pages 2008
Superman is such a mainstay in our culture that it’s hard to imagine what a unique and appealing character he was when he first appeared. Using the picture book format in , Nobleman tells the story of a couple of nerdish boys who grew up during the depression and imagined a superhero (who was actually an alien being) who could do amazing things in an ordinary world. The stories which had captured boys’ attention before involved men who lived in different times and places (Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers.) The story of writer Jerry Sigel is especially poignant; his father died of heart failure while his clothing store was being robbed. No wonder young Jerry dreamed of a man with super powers who could chase away the bad guys. Comic book fans will enjoy the large-format retro artwork. The afterword tells the story of Siegel and artist Joe Shuster’s legal battles to get credit for their work and share in the profits. Being young, and sensing that they were lucky to even have anyone interested in their story, the boys sold the rights to Superman for $150. Fortunately, the courts have restored them credit and seem to be on a path to allow their estates a portion of the profit from the franchise. Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman
Long May She Wave by Kristen Fulton
Grades K-3, 40 pages, 2017
I have been to the National Museum of American History in Washington D. C. and have seen the giant flag that is on display there, the flag that flew over Fort McHenry and was the inspiration for our national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
So, it was nice to read a little bit about the women and girls who made this famous flag. The book mostly focuses on 13-year-old Caroline Pickersgill who worked in her mother’s business and helped sew the enormous flag.
For a year, the book tells us, the “flag whipped in the wind.” But then came the battle of 1812 and the burning of Washington D.C., and the battle at Fort McHenry. While describing this last battle, the author works in several lines from the song, “gallantly streaming,” and “rocket’s red glare,” and so on. I thought it seemed a little forced, but on the other hand, children will probably delight in being able to identify the familiar phrases.
The story is told in a picture book format and the illustrations give a good sense of the times, as well as being bright and vibrant. It’s a short book with small blocks of text and very large pictures. An author’s note gives more information on how Caroline Pickersgill started her business when it was unusual for women to do so.
Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade
AR 5.4 Grades K-3 36 pages 2011
This book is a loving and whimsical overview of Tony Sarg’s idea to use giant helium balloons as a form of “reverse marionette” for a parade that was so popular that it became an annual tradition, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The picture book format supports Sweet’s delightful watercolor/collage illustrations, and children who have seen the parade (on TV, or in person) will love getting an inside view of one of its most iconic traditions.
Brothers at Bat: The True Story of an Amazing All-Brother Baseball Team
AR 4.4 Grades K-3 40 pages 2012
“According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, from the 1860s until the 1940s, there were twenty-nine baseball teams made up entirely of brothers,” author Audrey Vernick tells us in her note at the back of the book. It was a time when families were big and baseball was the game of choice. Vernick tells the story of teams of 12 brothers that played longer than any other: the Acerra boys of Long Branch, New Jersey. who played in the 1930s and 40s Children will enjoy learning family details--the children had to sleep two to a bed and sat three across in the bathroom--and Steve Salerno’s illustrations have a charming retro feel.
Owen & Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship
AR 5.4 Grade PreS-3 40 pages 2006
This photo essay tells the story of a baby hippo, Owen, who was displaced by the 2004 tsunami and the giant tortoise (Mzee) who formed a bond with him in a Kenyan nature preserve. The format is generally one or two paragraphs on a page, with large photos on the facing page.
The Bravest Dog Ever: The True Story of Balto
AR 2.5 Grades K-3 48 pages 1989
This inspiring story about the sled dog who led the team that delivered diphtheria medicine to Nome when the train couldn’t get through is one of the simplest and shortest books on this list. It is an Easy Reader format (Step Into Reading, Level 3). Give this book to a child who loves dogs, adventure, or both.
Knut: How One Little Polar Bear Captivated the World
AR 5.4 Grades K-3 24 pages 2007
Is there anything more adorable than a baby polar bear? This book follows the story of a polar bear cub born in a Berlin zoo and hand-raised by the chief bear keeper, Thomas Dorflein. The zoo astaff obviously loved taking photos of him, and lots of large, high-quality photos populate this book. Hatkoff includes quite a bit of information about polar bears and their habitat within the narratvie, and she supplements the back of the book with more information about their appearance, diet, habits, and habitat. She also includes a section on the shrinking sea ice in the Arctic.
Leo the Snow Leopard
AR 7.2 Grade: PreS-3 40 pages 2010
This book traces the journey of an orphaned baby snow leopard from the time he was found by a Pakistani goat herder to the Bronx Zoo, a worldwide leader in breeding and keeping snow leopards. The picture book format allows for lots of large pictures, and the text is in a large font with plenty of space between the lines. Children will enjoy the adventurous aspects of the story: a long trip over narrow and treacherous roads, maneuvering around a rockslide. They will also be intrigued to learn that the travelers stayed in a hotel with air conditioning so that Leo wouldn’t become overheated, and that he had to learn through hard experience when another snow leopard at the zoo was angry at him.
The Camping Trip that Changed America: Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and Our National Parks
AR 5.0 Grades 1-3, 32 pages 2013
describes the trip that president Teddy Roosevelt took with John Muir, an outing that arguably inspired the president to push laws to save the wilderness. Gerstein’s colorful illustrations serve to convey the grandeur of the California landscape, especially the double-page spread that shows them among the redwoods. It’s a picture book format that has only one or two paragraphs per page. Since there is no official record of the conversation of the two men, Rosenstock wrote an imagined dialogue, trying to stay true to the spirit of the letters between the two men and contemporary newspaper accounts. The Camping Trip That Changed America
Narrative Nonfiction for Kids in Middle Grades, 2-6
Check this section if you are looking for narrative nonfiction for older elementary children.
New! Soldier Song: A True Story of the Civil War
Grades 4-7 80 pages 2017
The story takes place at the battle of Fredricksburg when the Union army, stinging from defeat, retreated to the other side of the river. Levy describes the songs that men in each of the camps would have played: “Dixie” for the southerners and “Yankee Doodle” for the northerners. (The illustrator, Gilbert Ford, does include the musical notation for the songs, in case you want to play them so the students can hear what they sound like. You can also look for the songs on YouTube to give you an idea of how the music from that era sounded.)
As it grew close to Christmas, the camps could hear each other’s music wafting across the river. And then, on of the soldier’s began playing a tune that was near and dear to the hearts of the men from both sides, “Home Sweet Home.” Both sides joined in, and the men stood, transfixed, until the song was done. Frank Mixson a 16-year-old Confederate soldier recounted that when the song finished, the men cheered and tossed their hats for at least half an hour. “I do believe that had we not had the river between us that the two armies would have gone together and settled the war right there and then.”
Quite often, the author includes primary sources—the words of the men themselves—in her text. And she gets across the atmosphere of the battle camps and the grief and longing of the men who were often fighting friends or family members on the other side.
The illustrations have the look of woodcuts and add to the ambiance of the story.
The book has all kinds of nonfiction extras, including a synopsis of the Battle of Fredricksburg, the musical notation for “Home Sweet Home,” a list of websites which include recordings of the songs mentioned, a timeline of the Civil War, and a selected bibliography.
National Geographic Kids Animal Stories: Heartwarming True Tales from the Animal Kingdom
Grades 3-8 160 pages 2014
This book, National Geographic Kids Animal Stories, contains 19 short vignettes about notable animals, includes several animals that kids have probably heard of, including Balto and Smokey Bear. Within these pages, they will also find true account of elephants who danced ballet, a chimp who lived with a human family, and a daring WWI carrier pigeon hero. This would be a good book for children who need a short piece to read, sine each story is only 6-10 pages, in picture-book format. Or, at 150+ pages, the whole book could be and entertaining read for an older child. Take allok at the following site to hear audio of Hoover, the talking seal. His “Get over here” in a Maine accent is uncanny.
Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France
AR Reading Level 5.0 For grades 2-5 48 pages 2015
Here is a great book to use to introduce any number of things: the scientific method, the power of suggestion, or the life and times of Benjamin Franklin.
First, the story. It takes place in 1776, the year Ben Franklin was in France to get support for the revolutionary war. The American was popular with the court in Paris because of his homespun charm and his reputation as a scientist.
Also popular in France was a fellow they called Dr. Mesmer, a man who claimed that he had found a powerful invisible force that he could control with his wand. With it, he could make a plain glass of water taste like strawberries to one man and like vinegar to another. He told people he could heal them, and they rushed to his office. As they left, they proclaimed themselves healed.
It has all the markings of a flim-flam man to us today, but these were heady and unusual times for humanity. We were discovering all kinds of things that we couldn’t see, hear, taste, smell, or feel, but nonetheless they were forces that did things—electricity, helium, etc. Much of the populace was convinced by Dr. Mesmer, but the other doctors in town didn’t like him cutting in on their business. They went to the king and asked him to do something about the man.
The king decided to pass the problem on to Benjamin Franklin. The man was renowned as a scientist; surely he could get to the bottom of the matter. Franklin agreed to take a look at Dr. Mesmer’s presentation and see if he could figure out what was going on. The method he used was an early form of the scientific method, and the book makes sure that the readers understand the different parts of the process. There are sidebars which explain and illustrate the steps from hypothesis to conclusion, and the text reinforces how Franklin’s process reflects the scientific method.
Franklin hypothesized that it was actually the power of suggestion that was causing all of Dr. Mesmer’s amazing things to happen, and he tested his hypothesis by blindfolding the subjects and observing to see if they still all responded the same way. It turns out that when they couldn’t see the “magical” doctor, they had no reaction to the things he did with his wand. Franklin concluded that it was indeed the power of suggestion that had caused seemingly miraculous things to happen.
Dr. Mesmer’s career was over, but the book pointed out that he did powerfully illustrate the placebo effect. Plus, he has a cool word “mesmerized” named after him.
The author and illustrator have combined their talents to make a lively book with loads of colorful illustrations and text that uses font and layout creatively. One clever touch is the endpapers which have circles in an optical illusion that make readers feel like they are being “mesmerized” from the very start.
It’s a fun and quite informative book that will drive home the usefulness of the scientific method as well as provide food for thought when it comes to the power of suggestion.
Those Rebels, John & Tom by Barbara Kerley
Grades 2-6, AR Reading Level 6.3 48 pages 2012
Kids often think that early American history is snooze-inducing. They take one look at the stiff men with their strange wigs and think they must have been the stuffiest people ever to populate the planet. It’s a tough task to get children to see how radical—revolutionary, in fact—the founding fathers were.
This book does an admirable job of relating the contributions of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in a lively fashion that helps kids relate to the two “rebels” and understand the part they played in American history.
You can tell from the first sentence that Kerley isn’t going rely on old-fashioned stilted diction to tell her story. She begins “The true story of how one gentleman—short and stout—and another—tall and lean—formed a surprising alliance, committed treason, and helped launch a new nation.”
Kids will love learning that John Adams was a bit of a rebel, skipping school to shoot marbles or fly kites. He was an active child who loved swimming, wrestling, and even boxing.
Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, was the kind of kid who would skip recess to immerse himself in Greek grammar. He liked dancing, playing the violin, and most of all reading. In fact, he made it a mission to read every single book in his father’s library.
So there you have them: John who was an active, talkative, and by his own admission, sometime obnoxious man. And Tom, a shy and quiet fellow who preferred writing to talking.
Together, they united against the unfairness of King George, who levied taxes on almost everything, and in Kerley’s words, used America as a “big fat piggy bank to be turned upside down and shaken for coins.” John was the short fellow who “battle hour after hour through heated debate,” and Tom, the tall lanky fellow, who “slumped down in his chair and never ‘uttered three sentences together.’”
The story takes us through the writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence. Not only is it a lesson in American history, but also on how two disparate personalities can work together to accomplish something great.
The book has lots of imaginative, colorful, and whimsical illustrations that punctuate the meaning of the text. With only 2 or 3 paragraphs per page, the book won’t overwhelm its readers.
In the end, we have a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable introduction to development of the Declaration of Independence.
I Survived True Stories: Five Epic Disasters
AR 6.3 143 pages Grades 2-5 2014
Tarshis’ historical fiction about some of the world’s biggest disasters has taken beginning chapter book readers by storm, and now she has come out with a narrative nonfiction collection of true stories that will rivet these young readers. Here you will find stories of children who survived well-known disasters like the Titanic, but also disasters that she learned about through her readers, such as the Henryville Tornado of 2012 and the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. Yes, a wave of molasses 25 feet high roared through Boston. It’s fascinating nonfiction reading for children in a chapter book format.
Mumbet's Declaration of Independence
AR 3.4 Grades 2-4 32 pages 2014
There are quite a few books about slaves gaining their freedom, but the twist to this one is that the woman named Mumbet lived in pre-revolutionary America. When she heard about the Massachusetts Declaration of Independence, she contacted a lawyer who successfully argued that keeping her a slave was unconstitutional. The judge and jury declared her free, and two years later, a judge declared all slavery unconstitutional in Massachusetts. Woefle uses spare but striking writing to tell the story, and Alix Delinois’ bright illustrations fill the pages of this large-format book giving it vibrancy and life.
Handle With Care: An Unusual Butterfly Journey
AR 4.9 Grades 2-5 34 pages 2014
With more and more butterfly pavilions popping up, quite a few children have seen the stunning blue morpho butterfly. This book shows readers the process of how these butterflies are raised and transported from a butterfly farm in Costa Rica to the Museum of Science in Boston. The large colorful photos show the stages of caterpillar development, to pupa and then on to hatching in Boston . The back matter includes more information about the life cycle of a butterfly, a glossary, and sources of more information.
Video of a Blue Morpho Butterfly
The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer's Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors
AR 6.0 Grade: 3-6 44 pages 2009
This book recounts the engaging story of Bob and Joe Switzer, who invented paints that glow—both in the dark and in the sunlight. The text is in short chunks—usually one to three paragraphs per page, and the large illustrations are done in a charming retro 50’s style. At first, the brothers’ paints were novelties, used in magic acts and department store displays. But when World War II broke out, people realized the paints could save lives. They could use them in signaling to airplanes, making lifeboats and buoys more visible, and guiding planes that were doing night-time landings. This book will appeal to kids that like a little bit of science and things that are cool.
Book Trailer for The Day-Glo Brothers
He Has Shot the President!: April 14, 1865: The Day John Wilkes Booth Killed President Lincoln
AR 5.8 Grade 3-6 64 pages 2014
No matter how well I know a subject, I always learn a little bit more from Don Brown’s books. In this recounting of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the subsequent manhunt, I learned that John Wilkes Booth stowed a board in Lincoln’s box which he used to jam the door to keep out Lincoln’s valet, Charles Forbes. I also found out that by the time Lincoln’s body reached his home in Springfield, one in four Americans had view the body and paid their respects. The book is formatted as a large chapter book, with no more than two short paragraphs per page. Brown’s muted watercolors illustrate the text. The content in necessarily grim: lots of illustrations showing men with knives and guns, and the story ends up with the killing of Booth and the hanging of his conspirators. But it is not bloody or gratuitous. The book is for a child who is interested in history and is not disturbed by the violent aspects of the story.
Fab Four Friends (The Beatles)
AR Reading Level 5.3 Narrative Nonfiction for grades 4-7 40 pages 2015
Amazingly enough, many kids still recognize Beatles tunes, and this book tells the story each of the boys in the band as they were growing up in war-torn Liverpool.
The author, Susannah Reich, starts with John Lennon, a boy who was sent to live with his aunt and uncle after his parents split up. His aunt and uncle were loving (Uncle George would read the young John nursery rhymes, and say “Give me squeaker,” meaning a noisy kiss on the cheek), but his mother was the one who really understood his love for music. When he was a teen, he’d wear his drainpipes (tight, skinny jeans) and play in his band, The Quarrymen.
After a few pages, we move onto Paul, a boy who’d lost his mum and turned to music to fill the void. It was Paul’s dad who was the music lover and pointed out harmony and instruments when the two of them listened to music. After meeting John, Paul joined The Quarrymen and a legendary pair was formed.
George was a friend of Paul’s, a kid whose mischievous grin and big ears belied how serious he was about learning the guitar. A friend of his said, “George was out to conquer it,” said one of his friends.
The story then moves to the Hamburg concerts and that band’s search for a drummer, whom they found in the person of Ringo Starr, a good-natured boy who took a long hospitalization in stride, taking the opportunity to be in the hospital band where he fell in love with the drums.
What really impressed me in this book was the artwork—lots of full-page pictures that capture the youth and energy, but also the wistfulness of the boys in the band.
This book only takes us up to the point when the Beatles became a smash. In the author’s note, Reich says that she wanted to show how four ordinary boys found music to be a life-saving force in their lives. She’s done a nice job of finding memorable details and quotes for each of the four boys and bringing them down to earth and relatable for children.
The Whydah: A Pirate Ship Feared, Wrecked, and Found
Grades 4-8, 170 pages, 2017
This 170-page book is for an older kid who likes a little history thrown in with a tale of adventure.
It has become somewhat of a cliché that children like all things pirate. Perhaps in an earlier time kids pretended to be swashbucklers, but I don’t think I’ve seen any youngster dressed up like a pirate for about 30 years. It seems they all want to be superheroes or princesses, and the movies and TV made for kids certainly push them that way.
And, to tell the truth, I thought all the romantic notions about pirates had done a disservice to history. Pirates, after all, were a bunch of seagoing thieves.
But, an account of the ship and crew of one of the most infamous pirate ships in history, does make for a rousing good story in Martin Sandler’s hands. If anyone could make seafaring history from the 17th century into a good story, it would be this author who has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and has won several Emmy Awards. The Whydah
The book gives us a concise and always fascinating recounting of the story of Sam Bellamy, a man who started out by trying to recover treasure on some sunken Spanish galleons—perhaps to enrich himself enough to win over the parents of a young woman he wanted to marry. But, his endeavor failed because the Spanish had already been to the wreckage site and recovered most of the goods that had been bound for their country.
Bellamy and his crew, disappointed that they hadn’t found easy money, resolved instead to take up a life of pirating. Sandler recounts their successes and their eventual capturing of one of the biggest prizes: the slave ship Whydah, which had an enormous hold, and was fast, to boot. Interspersed with the story, he tells us all kinds of surprising things about pirate life. For starters, pirate bands were democracies, with everyone voting for the leaders. They had carefully spelled out rules about how many shares of confiscated goods each man should get. Another surprising to me was that fact that they rarely had to fight their victims. Most sailors calculated that they weren’t getting paid enough to risk death or torture at the hands of a pirate crew, and they surrendered without a fight.
The tale of the demise of The Whydah is especially gripping, a story of greed, betrayal, and a perfect storm (literally). For centuries, the wreck of the treasure-laden ship lay off the coast of Cape Cod until a man named Barry Clifford put together a team of divers and marine archeologists to find the remains of the ship. Sanders tells their story as an adventure all its own, with the discovery of literally tons of artifacts that provide insights into pirate life, and into history at large.
A few years back, I went to an exhibition about The Whydah at our local science museum. I wish I’d have been able to read this book before I went. It would have given quite a bit of context to the things I was seeing.
At any rate, if you have a child who is a history and adventure buff, they would love this finely-crafted piece of narrative nonfiction.
Stubby the War Dog: The True Story of World War I's Bravest Dog
AR 7.4 Grades 5-8 71 pages 2014
Award-winning author Ann Bausum tells the engaging story of Stubby, a dog who turned up at an American World War I training camp and managed to stow away with the men on the ship that sailed to the war in Europe. This large-format book is published by National Geographic and consequently includes lots of photos and an attractive layout. Bausum packs quite a few words into this large-format book, but the writing is so lively children will feel they are reading a chapter book Any dog-lover will enjoy reading how Stubby helped out the troops from enhancing morale to giving advance warning of gas attacks to finding wounded Allied soldiers on the battlefield. He even captured a German soldier, knocking him down and holding him until others came to help. This is an uplifting story that teaches children quite a bit about World War I along the way.
We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball
AR 5.9 Grades 4-8 88 pages 2008
To tell the story of the Negro baseball leagues, Nelson creates a narrator with a folksy, colorful style who tells the histories of the ballplayers through 9 “innings” which take the reader form the 1860’s to the account of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barriers, and on into the 1960’s. We don’t learn the identity of the narrator, but he sounds like a grandfather telling his children about what happened back in the day. The text fills whole pages of this large-format book--it has considerably more words than most other books on this list—but the style is personable and engaging. The real standout feature are Nelson’s paintings. Over 40 of his shining, dignified artworks grace the book, showing the men who played, the action of the game, and the atmosphere of the times from the railroad station to the “Bronzeville Inn: Cabins for Colored” sign. This book has won a whole host of awards, reflecting the love and time Nelson lavished on this book.
© 2014 Adele Jeunette