February 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Amazing but True | Nonfiction for Reluctant Readers

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Do you rely on tried-and-true series entries to lure less-willing readers into informational texts? Scholastic’s “You Wouldn’t Want to… and the Gareth Stevens “Top 10 Worst…” books are excellent choices for this group, and  the “National Geographic Kids Chapters” are essential to have on hand. But there are also superior stand-alone titles with gripping or entertaining texts and high-quality art that will keep readers turning the pages. Listed here are a handful of recent books you won’t want to miss. The titles are in approximate Dewey Decimal order, just because we’re librarians.

The events and phenomena associated with UFOs and aliens are well-trodden territory for high-interest nonfiction, but Kelly Milner Halls puts them into clear perspective in Alien Investigation: Searching for the Truth about UFOs and Aliens (Lerner, 2012; Gr 3-6). Halls interviews experts and eyewitnesses, scouts old newspaper accounts, and reads formerly suppressed government documents. Her balanced presentation of multiple resources and theories invites kids to explore further before coming to their own conclusions.

If your idea of a book for reluctant readers involves glossy paper and sharp photographs, then Hélène Rajcak and Damien Laverdunt’s Small and Tall Tales of Extinct Animals  (Gecko, 2012; Gr 3-9) with its wry illustrations and classy binding, might not be an obvious choice. But the format of this oversize book—each spread features a funky comic on one page and a large, captioned drawing with a paragraph of description and history on the other—pulls readers into stories of the dodo, Steller’s sea cow, and the impractical-looking Irish elk.

Liven up your science collection with stories of nature’s undead. Rebecca L. Johnson’s Zombie Makers (Lerner, 2012; Gr 3-6) is well-researched, profusely illustrated, and undeniably unsettling. Luckily, most of the instances of fungal colonization, larval infestation, viral invasion, and parasitical worms involve invertebrates such as flies and caterpillars, but the guinea worm in the human leg is a photo you won’t soon forget. Kids will read this book to ribbons.

Are You “Normal”? More Than 100 Questions That Will Test Your Weirdness (National Geographic, 2011; Gr 3-6) by Mark Schulman satisfies one of the most basic and pressing needs of tweens and near-tweens: to minutely assess how they compare to others. Just take Greg Heffley, for example, who starts out the whole “Wimpy Kid” oeuvre by stating that he is the “52nd most popular kid” in school. So whether readers like pepperoni on your pizza or not, bite their fingernails or toenails, or prefer smooth peanut butter to chunky, there’s something in here everyone can say “yes” to. Curriculum bonus: exposure to graphing methods.

“Will my personality change as I get older?” “Is my voice unique?” “Does my brain stop working when I am asleep?” Older kids love learning about themselves, too, and Richard Walker’s Who Am I? The Amazing Science of Existence (Kingfisher, 2012; Gr 6-9) discusses topics ranging from emotions to metaphysics, and delivers concrete answers on questions teens might not have even considered. The author presents facts about issues related to bioethics, such as stem cell research, but avoids controversial statements. Sharp photos and snappy design add to the package.

There are abundant books that seek to tempt the young sports fan into a little reading—you can spot ’em a mile off. What makes The Sports Illustrated Kids Big Book of Why Sports Edition (Sports Illustrated, 2012; Gr 3-6) superior to all the others? First of all, it includes facts about big-league sports and others such as gymnastics, lacrosse, and skateboarding. (There’s even a curling question.) The facts and trivia are presented in four sections, each of which is capped with a quiz. Readers are encouraged to challenge the adult sports expert in their life to take the quiz with them and compare results—making the book itself something of a game.

Strutting It! The Grit Behind the Glamour (Tundra, 2011; Gr 6-9) provides straight talk about the modeling profession from fashion insider Jeanne Beker. There are lots of quotes and anecdotes featuring a deep well of names such as Kate, Linda, and Naomi, as well as lesser-known models including Irina Lazareanu, Carmen Dell’Orefice, and Crystal Renn. More photos would not have gone astray, and the book is, unfortunately, not full-color. Still, this is a good choice for fabulous young ladies and gentlemen interested in the world of fashion modeling—either as potential participants or as avid spectators.

What’s scarier? A mountain lion’s snarling lunge or a cyber attack by a classmate? The lion’s claws may be sharp, but your “friends” have Facebook photo tagging in their arsenal. How to Survive Anything: Shark Attack, Lightning, Embarrassing Parents, Pop Quizzes, and Other Perilous Situations (National Geographic, 2011; Gr 4-9) by Rachel Buchholz, illustrated by Chris Philpot, offers practical advice for surviving both. Tween readers will also get valuable guidance on how to apologize, stay safe online, and find water on a desert island. Snappy design and hip, what-not-to-do illustrations hook readers.


Driest desert, deepest ocean trench, biggest earthquake…trust a book called Seymour Simon’s Extreme Earth Records (Chronicle, 2012; Gr 3-6) to take young readers on a tour of the most punishing places and severe geological events on the planet. Real-world comparisons (the average yearly snowfall on Mount Rainier’s south slope is about equal to the height of “a dozen children standing on each other’s shoulders”) combine with sharp (unfortunately, uncaptioned) color photos to make this a lively trip.

What would it be like to be buried under more than 2000 feet of solid rock…for more than two months? Elaine Scott’s Buried Alive!: How 33 Miners Survived 69 Days Deep Under the Chilean Desert (Clarion, 2012; Gr 3-6) weaves the remarkable human aspects of this drama—the duration of the miners’ confinement, their inspiring morale, the resources brought to bear in order to rescue them—with the economic and geographic context of the San José mine to create a readable, compelling story that will give readers insight into a lesser-known area of the world. Documentary photos of the ordeal establish credibility, and special attention is paid to the families and children of the trapped men.

Pete Athans has scaled Mt. Everest 14 times and reached the summit on seven occasions. In Tales from the Top of the World: Climbing Mount Everest with Pete Athans (Lerner, 2012; Gr 3-6), his sister Sandra Athans describes the anatomy of an ascent from base camp to peak, with the mountaineer’s stories of avalanches, killer storms, and white-knuckle rescues providing drama. Stunning photographs and informative diagrams bring readers on site with this intrepid adventurer.

You don’t have to be an animal lover to be deeply moved by the stories of canine loyalty, devotion, and courage in Dogs on Duty: Soldiers’ Best Friends on the Battlefield and Beyond (Walker, 2012; Gr 2-6). Military Working Dogs have been part of the U.S. armed forces since WWI, but their use in battle goes back to ancient times. Dorothy Hinshaw Patent describes the ways in which these animals have assisted armies throughout history and follows present-day selection and training. Short, accessible sections are accompanied by sidebars on individual heroic creatures. The descriptions of the loving bonds that these animals develop with their handlers make this a title children can relate to and present a positive window into the armed services.

Older readers crave you-are-there accounts of dramatic world events. Photographer Rafal Gerszak provides just that in Beyond Bullets: A Photo Journal of Afghanistan (Annick Press, 2011; Gr 6 Up), as he describes the harrowing, heartbreaking, and sometimes transcendent experiences behind his photographs of soldiers and civilians. There’s a fair amount of text here, but the stories of danger, hardship, and friendship, and the numerous images, will have readers poring over these pages. Photographs of amputees and injured children may be unsettling for some.

“Big Meeting—Ides of March—Bring Daggers!—Brutus.” Leeches, blister beetles, live burial, exploding bodies—all funny, if examined in a certain light. Georgia Bragg does just that in How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous (Walker, 2011; Gr 3-9), an excellent entrée to the study of advances in medicine and a great way to convince kids that biographies are not boring. Kevin O’Malley’s gross—and humorous—illustrations cement this book’s position on the must-purchase list.

Nathan Hale (1755-1776) was this country’s first spy, captured behind enemy lines prior to the invasion of Manhattan. One Dead Spy (Abrams, 2012; Gr 3-6), the first book in the “Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales,” begins as Hale is about to be hanged. Nathan Hale, the book’s author, (1976- ) is an acclaimed artist and history buff. His art is lively, meticulous, and clearly drawn, while his text is funny and rigorously researched. Sieges, raids, and night crossings may seem like perfect material for the graphic-novel treatment, but Hale even manages to make panels describing troop movements exciting.

Paula Willey is a librarian at Baltimore County Public Library and reviews nonfiction and graphic novels for School Library Journal. Read her opinionated reviews online at Pink Me.

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