February 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Raising the Bar: New and noteworthy nonfiction for secondary students

When the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were first rolled out, the education community was vocal in its response. Top among the concerns was the new emphasis on nonfiction. The search for standards-aligned titles sent many educators into the library looking for engaging, authoritative texts in a variety of formats featuring appealing and informative illustrations, source notes, and suggestions for further reading–all hallmarks of quality nonfiction. In addition, the CCSS asks that students learn to read closely and to think critically, to ask questions, to probe for evidence, to examine multiple perspectives, and to consider an author’s point of view, purpose, and style.

Listed below are recently published nonfiction books for secondary students. The suggestions are grouped thematically with an eye toward a range of perspectives, approaches, and formats, and the needs of diverse learners. Beyond these texts, the introduction of multimedia resources, activities, and/or tasks bring additional layers of complexity.

Learning to read (and think) critically

By the time our students are teens, most have developed a healthy dose of skepticism. They have heard friends, family, and the media espouse views or state as fact information that can’t be backed with evidence. Several recent books examine myths and misinformation and encourage (and coach) teens to think critically.

RaiseBar_criticalKevin C. Pyle and Scott Cunningham’s Bad for You: Exposing the War on Fun. A Graphic Investigation (Holt, 2014; Gr 8 Up) looks at centuries’ worth of falsehoods and lies on topics ranging from dice and fairy tales to chess and comics. Abundant black-and-white illustrations, graphic panels, maps, and charts, along with a cogent text, shed as much light on societal fears as on the lengths to which people will go to regulate activities they don’t approve of, and to indoctrinate others to their way of thinking. John Grant’s conversational Debunk It!: How to Stay Sane in a World of Misinformation (Zest, 2015; Gr 9 Up) discusses the dangers of disseminating misinformation, defines logical fallacies, and offers a basic explanation of the scientific method. Grant exposes examples of poor arguments and dismantles them, step-by-step with logic and evidence. Paul Fleischman offers a lesson on questioning authority, identifying bias, and vetting sources while zeroing in on the environmental movement in Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines (Candlewick, 2014; Gr 7 Up). In an interview Fleischman stated, “…the ability to look critically at information sources is crucial…. I thought of my best teachers: the ones who made surprising connections between the past and the present, who picked out general principles behind the mass of facts.” These books offer lessons on how to do just that.

Show me the evidence

Two recent titles on the water crisis offer measured assessments, statistics, and relatable examples—through different approaches.

RaiseBar_waterStuart A. Kallen’s accessible Running Dry: The Global Water Crisis (Twenty-First Century, 2015; Gr 6 Up) offers background and a sobering overview of the current situation, including the impact of pollution and global warming. It raises important questions about individual, corporate, and government responsibility, and the future availability of this precious resource. While covering much of the same ground, Stephen Leahy’s Your Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use to Make Everyday Products (Firefly, 2014; Gr 6 Up) will appeal to visual learners. The book is packed with full-page photos, maps, bold infographics, and illustrated statistical comparisons for readers to interpret and weigh. The explanation of how a “water footprint” is calculated is fascinating. The amount of water needed to produce a bottle of cola? 46 gallons. A pair of jeans? 2,000. These eye-opening calls to action offer examples of solid documentation.

Background History

Social justice issues headline daily news stories and are frequent topics of classroom study. Offering students background information on the struggles for civil rights, the demand for safe working conditions and a living wage, and other issues, provides them with perspective on some of the challenges facing our society today.

RaiseBar_historyIntroduce students to a selection of histories—from Larry Dane Brimner’s Strike! The Farm Workers’ Fight For Their Rights (Calkins Creek, 2014; Gr 5 Up), a compelling, illustrated narrative of the five-year-long United Farm Workers strike (1965-1970) led by César Chávez to Carole Boston Weatherford’s Voice of Freedom (Candlewick, 2015; Gr 6 Up), a poignant poetic tribute to the life of the activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who faced repeated humiliation, imprisonment, and police abuse, campaigning for voter registration in the South. The history of the civil rights movement—seen from the lunch counter sit-ins of the late 1950s to President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009—receives brilliant treatment in Congressman John Lewis’s powerful graphic memoirs March: Book One (2013) and March: Book Two (2015; both Top Shelf; Gr 8 Up), written with Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell. The radicalization of the gay community is traced back to a sweltering night in June 1969, when riots erupted outside the Stonewall (Viking, 2015; Gr 8 Up), a bar in New York City’s West Village. Ann Bausum’s fascinating history of the gay rights movement and its legacy will provide context to current conversations about discrimination and marriage equality.

Engaging & authoritative

A gripping story well told will interest any student; add to that an element of teen involvement and the study of history is anything but fusty.

RaiseBar_authoritativeAshamed that his nation’s government did not resist German occupation in April 1940, 14-year-old Knud Pedersen, and his brother Jens, along with several friends, decided to “disrupt” German activity in their hometown of Odense, Denmark. On bicycles and on foot, The Boys Who Challenged Hitler (Farrar, 2015, Gr 7 Up) destroyed directional signs and cut telephone lines. When the family moved to Aalborg, the teens formed The Churchill Club, and their activities escalated to stealing weapons and blowing up railroad cars. In his book, written after hours of interviews with Pedersen, Phillip Hoose documents the club members’ incredible courage and exploits, and their imprisonment. How Adolf Hitler was able to develop and inculcate a paramilitary youth group in 1930s Germany, which helped rebuild a depressed nation and later served as military reserve, is examined in Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Hitler Youth (Scholastic, 2005; Gr 6 Up). The author profiles a number of individuals who were active group members in their teens, as well as citizen resisters. In his autobiographical Unlikely Warrior: A Jewish Soldier in Hitler’s Army (Farrar, 2015; Gr 8 Up), Georg Rauch tells how as a young man he and his mother worked with the resistance in Vienna during the Third Reich. When drafted by the German army, Rauch revealed his Jewish ancestry—and was sent to the Eastern front where trenches, near starvation, and a Russian prison camp awaited him. Stories of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust are offered in Doreen Rappaport’s Beyond Courage (Candlewick, 2012; Gr 6 Up), including that of 14-year-old Idel Kagan who helped build an escape tunnel from a labor camp in Poland. These well-researched, riveting books, supported by quotes, first-person accounts, illustrative material, author notes, and more, will have students discussing topics from war and resistance to the risks of the blind acceptance of authority.

A Well-Rounded Story

The life and legacy of an accomplished individual such as Jane Goodall can be examined from many perspectives, as is witnessed by the number of books written by and about this remarkable primatologist, who left England at the age of 26, and under the mentorship of Louis Leakey, startled the world with her groundbreaking observations about chimpanzees.

RaiseBar_wellroundedIn Untamed: The Wild Life of Jane Goodall (National Geographic, 2015; Gr 5-8), Anita Silvey offers an overview of Goodall’s life from her childhood to her conservation efforts around the world today. Goodall’s essay, The Chimpanzee Children of Gombe (Minedition, 2014; Gr 4-8), with photos by Michael Neugebauer, focuses on two of the chimp families she studied extensively in Gombe National Park. On another track, the scientist’s role in inspiring other female primatologists is explored by Jim Ottaviani’s and Maris Wicks’s graphic Primates (First Second, 2013; Gr 5 Up), which covers Goodall’s field work as well as that of Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas. Author and artist explore each woman’s distinct style and interests, and address the broader questions, “What kind of person does it take to do this kind of work? How hard is it? When did our understanding of what it means to be a primate begin? And why is it important?”

Questions…and more questions

Examining the work of “scientists in the field” can also provide students with models of inquiry.

RaiseBar_questionsIn Beetle Busters (HMH, 2014; Gr 5-9) Loree Griffin Burns follows a team of scientists in a quarantined area of Massachusetts as they observe—and exterminate—the invasive Asian longhorned beetle, a pest with “powerful jaws and a taste for wood” and the frightening potential to eat their way through North American forests. Burns provides an up-close view of the work of these dedicated scientists, whom she admires, but, like a true scientist, questions some of their methods. In The Next Wave (HMH, 2014; Gr 6 Up) Elizabeth Rusch reports on the successes (and failures) of innovative engineers who have been attempting to harness and convert the ocean’s energy into an alternative, renewable resource. What Sandra K. Athans explores in Secrets of the Sky Caves (Millbroook, 2014; Gr 5-8) is equally thrilling. The secrets Nepal’s Mustang Cliffs ultimately will yield are still unknown as anthropologists shift through and study an extraordinary cache of ancient relics, mummies, and manuscripts discovered in this nearly inaccessible place. All three books are abundantly illustrated with color photos, offer insight into the scientific method and demanding nature of field work, and reveal how inquiry often engenders additional questions and studies.

Point of View

Mysteries of another nature are explored by medical scientists, and on occasion, raise ethical questions.

PointofViewWitness the work of Joseph Goldberger, who discovered the cause of pellagra, a nutritionally based disease that plagued the poor for centuries. Gail Jarrow traces the work of this epidemiologist in Red Madness: How a Medical Mystery Changed What We Eat (Calkins Creek, 2014; Gr 6 Up) with the skill of a trained detective. She focuses on the scientific method and the “twists and turns, errors, and confusion[s]” of the investigators—noting that their path wasn’t always clear-cut. Nor was it morally certain. In Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary (Calkins Creek, 2015; Gr 5 Up), another page-turner, Jarrow examines the life and fate of Mary Mallon (1869-1938), a cook who was discovered to be a carrier of the deadly disease. Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Terrible Typhoid Mary (HMH, 2015; Gr 5-9) offers additional insight into the life of Mallon and the ethics of the medical establishment’s decision to quarantine the woman to protect the public. If these titles don’t have students asking questions and reflecting on patients’ rights and the role, promise, and power of the medical profession, Vicki Oransky Wittenstein’s For the Good of Mankind? The Shameful History of Human Medical Experimentation (Twenty-First Century, 2014; Gr 8 Up) will. In the United States, well into the 20th century, orphans, pregnant women, African Americans, servicemen, and others were subjected to experimentation without their knowledge, much less consent. Appended questions and discussions of current-day controversies surrounding biospecimens and stem-cell research bring this conversation into the 21st century. Begin by asking students about each author’s purpose and point of view.

A Variety of Formats

Untraditional formats and approaches enliven the options when studying life stories.

FormatsIn Steve Jobs: Insanely Great (Random, 2015; Gr 6 Up), Jessie Hartland presents a delightful and quirky graphic view of the unconventional creative genius behind Apple products, whose perfectionism and peevishness drove many to distraction, even as it powered one of the most successful companies of our age. In a very different tone, Jacqueline Woodson’s stunning memoir in verse traces her growth as a writer from a child who struggled with a learning disability to a young adult, confident in her abilities, in the award-winning Brown Girl Dreaming (Penguin, 2014, Gr 5 Up). In equal measure, this heartwarming book is the story of a loving family and the depiction of the changes and challenges that take it from Ohio to the Jim Crow South to Brooklyn, NY, in the 1960s and ’70s. In the beautifully designed Sitting Bull (Abrams, 2015; Gr 5 Up), which incorporates archival photos, art inspired by the ledger book drawings of the 19th-century Lakota, pull-quotes, and a captivating first-person voice, S.D. Nelson introduces students to the great leader of the Sioux nation. Catherine Ingram’s This is Warhol (2014; Gr 10 Up), illustrated by Andrew Ral, is a hybrid of another sort, one of a series by Laurence King Publishing that combines text, infographics, cartoon art, captioned illustrations, and abundant reproductions in describing the life, times, and work of modern artists. The paintings of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera display distinct styles, but for both the thematic nature of their art was rooted in their pride in their Mexican heritage and political fervor. Catherine Reef offers a dual biography of this passionate, gifted couple in Frida & Diego: Art, Love, Life (Clarion, 2014; Gr 7 Up).

Expression—creative and otherwise

While many of the above books can be used to explore an author’s voice and expression, a number of new titles offer distinct articulations in sound, tone, and speech.

ExpressionGary Golio and Ed Young’s stunning picture book Bird & Diz (Candlewick, 2015; Gr 4 Up) captures the spirit and genius of bebop artists Charlie “Bird” Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and their classic rendition of “Salt Peanuts.” This virtuoso performance offers bursts of rhythm and flashes of color as the impressionistic text skit-scats and swirls between the artists, through a jazz club, and across the pages of this concertina. Next, the distinct voice of the narrator (“the Groove”) of Andrea Davis Pinkney’s Rhythm Ride (Roaring Brook, Sept., 2015; Gr 5-10), takes readers on a road trip through the sounds of the Motor City in the 1960s and ’70s. The Motown label was Berry Gordy Jr.’s idea and enterprise, but in the early years both management and musicians worked together to build a company that put “pride on the flip side of prejudice.” Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Leatherdale’s anthology, Dreaming in Indian (Annick, 2014; Gr 6 Up), presents the words and work of more than 60 individuals—from activists to artists—whose unique visions challenge Native American stereotypes. In Jump Back, Paul (Candlewick, 2015; Gr 5-9; illustrated by Sean Qualls) Sally Derby adopts the voice of a storyteller as she explores the life, times, and poetry of the gifted Paul Laurence Dunbar, who chose to write many of his verses in dialect. There’s a wealth of support material for these titles online; be sure to introduce it to students for a fuller, multimedia picture of the artists, and an opportunity to compare and contrast what they learned from each medium.

Stories Waiting to Be Told

A fact, a quote, or a line in an article piques an author’s interest and in attempting to learn more a tale waiting to be told is discovered. For readers it’s often these stories that offer the most insight into an author’s process.

StoriesWaitingIn Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Right s (Roaring Brook, 2014; Gr 7 Up) Steve Sheinkin relates the story of the massive 1944 explosion that killed more than 200 African Americans assigned to load ammunition onto ships. Incorporating quotes from the sailors, trial transcripts, and information gleaned from interviews with the survivors, Sheinkin explores the blatant injustices surrounding the event and its aftermath. Searching for Sarah Rector (Abrams, 2014; Gr 6 Up) led Tonya Bolden to the Library of Congress and historical societies and archives across the South to learn more about the life and disappearance of a girl whose Oklahoma land allotment bore rich oil reserves, making her “the richest black girl in America” in the early 20th century. As a researcher, Marc Aronson displays the same doggedness in uncovering a story as the paleoanthropologist Lee R. Berger does in locating prehistoric remains. The two coauthored Skull in the Rock (National Geographic, 2012; Gr 5-9), the story of Berger’s stunning discovery in 2008 of a never-before-found species, Australopithecus sediba. Superb visuals, including onsite photos, and support materials make this a captivating read, but don’t miss the teacher materials and updates on the discovery on Berger’s website. Students will gain understanding of the research process in studying these authors’ notes and in the interviews with them found online.

Many of the titles listed above are interchangeable as examples of nonfiction attributes or specific core concepts. Carole Boston Weatherford’s Voice of Freedom, while presenting background information on a movement, also provides an excellent example of how an author uses voice in telling a story. Similarly, Fleischman’s Eyes Wide Open and Hoose’s The Boys Who Challenged Hitler offer stellar examples of the research process. The CCSS encourage variety and flexibility in the use of resources. It’s up to us to make sure that the educators and students we work with have access to a range of quality material.

For additional nonfiction resources for CCSS implementation, see Kathy Odean’s article “20 Outstanding Nonfiction Books” and SLJ and The Horn Book Magazine’s The Common Core in Grades K-3, and The Common Core in Grades 4-6 (both 2014, Roman & Littlefield).

Curriculum Connections

This article was featured in our free Curriculum Connections enewsletter.
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This article was published in School Library Journal's September 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Daryl Grabarek About Daryl Grabarek

Daryl Grabarek dgrabarek@mediasourceinc.com is the editor of School Library Journal's monthly enewsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go. Before coming to SLJ, she held librarian positions in private, school, public, and college libraries. Her dream is to manage a collection on a remote island in the South Pacific.

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  1. Daryl, thank you for this thorough look at terrific nonfiction available for students today. It’s great how you organized it featuring different perspectives, topics and formats so that there is something for a wide variety of kids.

  2. Thanks Daryl, I look forward to your articles monthly.