December 15, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

20 Outstanding Nonfiction Books | Core Essentials

At long last, the educational spotlight is shining on nonfiction. Under the widely adopted Common Core (CC) Standards for reading informational texts (RI), teachers must integrate more nonfiction than ever into the curriculum. Although some teachers are leaning towards having students read excerpts rather than books, no student is “college and career ready” without having read entire books. Librarians should seize this opportunity to promote outstanding nonfiction that has previously taken a backseat to fiction. Many teachers and students will be surprised at the range of books on fascinating topics, books that are skillfully written and well researched with excellent visual elements. It’s time to dazzle them with our hidden treasures.

Because the standards require reading and rereading texts closely, the books must be engaging enough to keep students interested and substantial enough to merit close study. Our shelves have many books that suit those needs, such as those highlighted by this list. Each of these books is paired with a standard for a specific grade and meets the CC reading formula measures for that grade. All are multifaceted enough to lend themselves to other standards and a range of grades. And they’re only a small sample of the great nonfiction that finally has a chance to share center stage.


Barretta, Gene.Now & Ben: The Modern Inventions of Benjamin Franklin. illus. by author. Holt. 2006. ISBN 978-0-80507-917-3. Gr 2–5

Byrd, Robert. Electric Ben: The Amazing Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin. illus. by author. Dial. 2012. ISBN 978-0-8037-3749-5. Gr 4–7

Fritz, Jean. What’s the Big Idea, Ben Franklin? illus. by Margot Tomes. Putnam. 1976. ISBN 978-0-698-20365-5. Gr 3–5
Schroeder, Alan
Ben Franklin: His Wit and Wisdom from A to Z.illus. by John O’Brien. Holiday House. 2011. ISBN 978-0-82341-950-0. Gr 2–5
CC Standard RI.4.9
Integrate information from two texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably.

Ben Franklin wore so many hats that he merits many biographies. These illustrated books at different reading levels take a variety of approaches to his life and work. Barretta uses a “Now/Then” structure, focusing on Franklin’s inventions in his day and how they’re used now. Schroeder uses an alphabetical arrangement that mixes miscellaneous facts; the letter “B,” for example, covers Boston, bifocals, and balloon. The Fritz and Byrd biographies are chronological structures, but have different tones and levels of detail. Students can compare emphases and structures, perhaps using a graphic organizer, and also compare the varied illustration styles and what they add to each text.

Gibbons, Gail. Monarch Butterfly. Holiday House. 1989. PreS–Gr 2
Marsh, Laura F
Caterpillar to Butterfly.National Geographic. 2012. ISBN 978-1-4263-0920-5. PreS–Gr 2
CC Standard RI K.9
With prompting and support, identify basic similarities in and differences between two texts on the same topic (e.g., in illustrations, descriptions, or procedures).

The amazing transformation from caterpillar to butterfly is conveyed in different ways by these two colorful books. Kindergarteners will be able to identify similarities in the information and differences in presentation such as photographs versus paintings. Both books use labels in the visuals to highlight body parts. The Marsh book has a table of contents, numbered chapters, a glossary, and tips for a butterfly garden. Gibbons’s book features a map of migration routes and explains how to raise a monarch butterfly.

Kudlinski, Kathleen V. Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs! illus. by S. D. Schindler. Dutton. 2005. ISBN 978-0-52546-978-0. Gr 2–4
CC Standard RI.4.8
Explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text.

It was once believed that dinosaurs dragged their tails; now fossil finds indicate that they held their tails out straight. This upbeat book with humorous illustrations provides a valuable lesson in how science uses new findings and ideas to reevaluate accepted beliefs, comparing what scientists used to think about dinosaurs with what they think now. Students can make a chart listing each past belief, each new belief, and the evidence that prompted the change, and judge whether the evidence seems sufficient. The book explains that scientists still don’t have all the answers, often due to insufficient evidence, and they don’t always agree with one another in interpreting evidence. Students can look for language that indicates uncertainty, such as “there is no way to be sure.” Some students might like to compare this book to Kudlinski’s Boy, Were We Wrong about the Solar System! (Dutton, 2008) which has a similar structure.

Leedy, Loreen. Seeing Symmetry. illus. by author. Holiday House. 2012. ISBN 978-0-8234-2360-6. Gr 2–4
CC Standard RI.3.7
Use information gained from illustrations (e.g., maps, photographs) and the words in a text to demonstrate understanding of the text (e.g., where, when, why, and how key events occur).

Bright computer-generated pictures use familiar objects like food, animals, and people to show examples of vertical, horizontal, and rotational symmetry. The simple text explains the concepts and introduces new vocabulary like line symmetry, mirror image, horizontal, vertical, and rotate, terms which will require going over more than once. Students can then seek out examples in school and at home to demonstrate their understanding of the types of symmetry. Teachers may also want to use the two craft activities given at the back of the book to reinforce the concepts.

Macaulay, David, and Sheila Keenan. Castle: How It Works. illus. by David Macaulay. Roaring Brook/David Macaulay Studio. 2012. ISBN 978-1-59643-744-9. Gr 1–3
CC Standard RI.2.4
Determine the meaning of words and phrases in a text relevant to a grade 2 topic or subject area.

The master of architectural books turns his talents to a younger crowd with this easy reader that meets the CC need for texts on technical subjects. With a slight fictional story line, the appealing text and pictures introduce castle residents, parts of the building, and different weapons, using technical terms in context like siege and portcullis, which are also defined in the glossary. At certain points the voice is second person, such as, “You are deep within the castle.” Students can note where that’s used and what it adds. Another book in the series by the same authors is Jet Plane: How It Works, which has similar features and approach.

Mann, Elizabeth. Empire State Building. illus. by Alan Witschonke. Photos by Lewis Hine. Mikaya. 2003. ISBN 978-1-93141-406-7. Gr 4–8
Standard RI.5.3
Explain the relationships or interactions between two or more individuals, events, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text based on specific information in it.

The Empire State Building dazzled New York City when it was built in 1931. This engaging Orbis Pictus Honor Book employs cutaways and numbered diagrams to demonstrate how it was constructed. Students can analyze how the text and visuals, including paintings and historical photographs, convey the process, noting that building skyscrapers depended on technological advances such as the inventions of steel and the automatic elevator brake. Another central idea is that during the Great Depression the Empire State Building was an important symbol of hope to New Yorkers, who were proud of the height made possible only by those technological advances. Check out other books in the “Wonders of the World” series, too, which satisfy the CC call for technical content.

Pinkney, Andrea Davis. Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters. illus. by Stephen Alcorn. Harcourt. 2000. ISBN 978-0-15201-005-8. Gr 4–8
Standard RI.5.2
Determine two or more main ideas of a text and explain how they are supported by key details; summarize the text.

From Sojourner Truth, born around 1797, to Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, born in 1924, this collective biography introduces 10 remarkable black women. A striking full-page color portrait of each individual precedes about 10 pages of text that describe her life and accomplishments. Pinkney emphasizes the strength of the subjects and the importance of fighting for change. An author’s note, which could be read aloud, points to these themes and to her motivation in writing about them. Students can approach the book as a whole or focus on one chapter to explore the main ideas and identify details that illustrate the women’s contributions and their commitment to freedom.

Rappaport, Doreen. Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. illus. by Bryan Collier. Hyperion. 2001. ISBN 978-0-78680-714-7. K–Gr 3
CC Standard RI.1.2
Identify the main topic and retell key details of a text.

The lyrical words and expansive pictures in this stunning award winner make it an excellent read-aloud. After listening to the book more than once or reading it independently, students can discuss its title and subtitle, which point to the main topic about the power of words in Dr. King’s life. As a class or in small groups, they can find details in the text, including the quotes in a colored typeface, that relate to the theme. Enrich the experience by listening to a clip from one of Dr. King’s speeches at Stanford’s MLK website.


Aronson, Marc and Marina Tamar Budhos. Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science. Clarion. 2010. ISBN 978-0-61857-492-6. Gr 8 Up
CC Standard RI.9-10.8
Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.

“Only 4 percent of the slaves taken from Africa were brought to North America, which means that 96 percent went to the Caribbean, Brazil, and the rest of South America, mostly to work with sugar.” This surprising fact points to the authors’ contention that the enormous growth in the sugar trade in the 17th and 18th centuries was the major factor in slavery. They argue, too, that sugar was instrumental in spreading the idea of freedom, an idea that changed the world. Like other books by Aronson, this work prompts readers to question previous assumptions and delve into the arguments presented, and encourages them to think like historians.

Burgan, Michael. Breaker Boys: How a Photograph Helped End Child Labor. Compass Point. 2012. ISBN 978-0-7565-4510-9. Gr 6–9
CC Standard RI.6.5
Analyze how a particular sentence, paragraph, chapter, or section fits into the overall structure of a text and contributes to the development of the ideas.

Photographs can change history. So contends this and other entries in the valuable “Captured History” series. Breaker Boys’ straightforward text focuses on a 1911 photograph by Lewis Hine of a group of boys who sorted coal at a Pennsylvania mine for 10 hours a day. The four chapters discuss coal mining, children in the mines, Hine and his work, and the slow changes in child labor laws. Students will be able to identify the structure as cause and effect, and analyze the role of the four chapters. They can also look for sentences and paragraphs that develop the idea of the political influence of photographs. To extend the topic, have students find more Hine photographs about child labor at the Library of Congress website or that can be used in presentations.

Burns, Loree Griffin. Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion. Houghton. 2007. ISBN 978-0-61858-131-3. Gr 6–9
CC Standard RI.7.3
Analyze the interactions between individuals, events, and ideas in a text (e.g., how ideas influence individuals or events, or how individuals influence ideas or events).

This fascinating photo-essay presents the work of an oceanographer who studies ocean currents by following the movement of debris like rubber ducks and hockey gloves spilled by container ships into the Pacific. Students can identify the central ideas about principles of ocean movement and issues around pollution, and trace their interaction through the text, noting how information about the scientist’s work and scientific methods are integrated with those ideas. Students can also consider how photographs, diagrams, and maps are crucial in developing the concepts. Other entries in the excellent “Scientists in the Field” series also lend themselves to use with Common Core.

Freedman, Russell. Who Was First? Discovering the Americas.Clarion. 2007. ISBN 978-0-618-66391-0. Gr 7 Up
CC Standard RI.11-12.5 Analyze and evaluate the effectiveness of the structure an author uses in his or her exposition or argument, including whether the structure makes points clear, convincing, and engaging.

In looking at beliefs about who first discovered America, Freedman starts with Christopher Columbus and moves backward in time to examine claims about earlier explorers. He shows that some claims don’t have adequate evidence, but also looks at one from an amateur historian that is now accepted. The book’s unusual structure makes it perfect for analysis to see if the reverse chronological organization is effective in making points about how historians evaluate new information and sometimes adjust their beliefs about the past. The chapter-by-chapter bibliographic essays are also models for research and documentation.

Hoose, Phillip. Moonbird : A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95. Farrar. 2012. ISBN 978-0-374-3046803. Gr 7 Up
CC Standard RI.9-10.6 Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how an author uses rhetoric to advance that point of view or purpose.

For the past 20 years, a bird nicknamed the Moonbird has flown annually from Patagonia to the Arctic and back, a round-trip of 18,000 miles. Unfortunately, the remarkable species of rufa Red Knots is diminishing in number for several reasons. Hoose brilliantly weaves together the Moonbird’s story, the threats to the species, and the international effort to save these birds. He engages readers with one bird’s amazing journey that’s dependent on a complicated web of ecological factors. Students can look carefully at the choice of words and content as well as Hoose’s background as an environmentalist to try to determine his purpose in writing the book and consider if that affects how a reader should approach the text.

Macaulay, David. Mosque.illus. by author. Houghton. 2003. ISBN 978-0-61824-034-0. Gr 7 Up
CC Standard RI.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Mosque explores in detail the building of a fictional mosque in the Ottoman Empire starting in 1595. Each generous spread combines sophisticated text with appealing large and small illustrations including maps, cutaways, diagrams, floor plans, and numbered step-by-step processes. Labels identify specific aspects of the building and introduce new vocabulary such as alem, pendentive, and dershane. The question addressed is how such a large structure was built so long ago. Students can consider the different and related roles text and art play in addressing that question and in presenting complex technical information. For a different media source on the same topic, listen to Macaulay’s NPR interview about Mosque.

Schlosser, Eric and Charles Wilson. Chew on This: Everything You Don’t Want to Know About Fast Food.Houghton. 2006. ISBN 978-0-61871-031-7. Gr 7–10
CC Standard RI.8.8 Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; recognize when irrelevant evidence is introduced.

Fast food—good or bad? In adapting Schlosser’s best seller Fast Food Nation, the authors thoughtfully added material relevant to teens about how fast food is marketed to young people and about teenagers who work in fast food restaurants. They point to problems with working conditions at the restaurants and with inhumane treatment of animals at companies that supply meat. They also argue that fast food harms the environment and consumers’ health. Students can consider whether the authors provide credible evidence for their arguments and if they acknowledge competing arguments about benefits of fast food such as convenience and low prices.

Stone, Tanya Lee. Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream.Candlewick. 2009. ISBN 978-0-76363-611-1. Gr 6 Up
CC Standard RI.8.6 Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how the author acknowledges and responds to conflicting evidence or viewpoints.

In the early 1960s, 13 women highly qualified to become astronauts were excluded by NASA from the Mercury space program. This appealing Sibert Award winner, notable for the author’s strong point of view, explores the reasons and biases behind the decision. Students can examine the text for language and other evidence that show Stone’s position on the topic and the people involved. For example, what words does she use to describe the women, some of whom she interviewed? How does she present opposing viewpoints that argued that women shouldn’t be included? One of the book’s main themes is that society minimized women’s abilities and restricted their opportunities. Students can consider how photographs and artifacts like advertisements are used to make that case, and if it’s presented fairly.

Kathleen OdeanKathleen Odean, chair of the 2002 Newbery Award Committee, presents workshops on new young adult books and Common Core nonfiction. She’s the author of Great Books for Girls (2002) and Great Books for Babies and Toddlers (2003, both Ballentine).On May 21, she will be moderating a free webcast on materials selection in light of the Common Core State Standards.

For additional nonfiction titles see “Raising the Bar: New and Noteworthy Nonfiction for Secondary Students.”

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  1. May I suggest An Eye for Color: The Story of Josef Albers which is about an abstract artist who studied how color interacts by painting squares for 27 years. Includes activities, color glossary and an extended bio in the end notes. Introduction to the dynamics of color for elementary school kids.

  2. Thanks so much for this wonderful list!

  3. Can I suggest “Boom, Bust, Boom – A Story About Copper, The Metal That Runs The World” by Bill Carter? The book is an account of the all-pervasive presence of copper in our lives and its cost on our health, economy, and our environment – with a beautifully interwoven personal discovery that begins after Carter is poisoned by the vegetables grown in his family garden. The book won an Arizona/New Mexico book award for nonfiction in November of 2013.