Hooking the Reluctant Nonfiction Reader

Six recent titles that will entice even the most nonfiction-resistant readers.

I find it hard to believe, but there are some kids who don’t like to read nonfiction. They’re fiction readers through and through, but consider nonfiction to be dry, boring, and generally uninteresting. Aside from my personal horror at this attitude, the reality is that kids will have to read nonfiction now and for the rest of their life. To be successful in school, to be informed citizens, to do their jobs, and just to collect information in general, being a literate nonfiction reader is an important skill. One of the best kinds nonfiction to hook these die-hard fiction fans is history. It is, after all, just another kind of story. I’ve looked over a lot of the recently published history titles and selected six that are not only accessible and interesting, but also include diverse perspectives, break new ground, or introduce readers to remarkable people, places, and events. Even fiction fanatics will be enticed!

At first glance, a biography of a medieval woman who was interested in caterpillars may not seem like a logical choice for those who are reluctant to read nonfiction. But Joyce Sidman’s first middle grade title, The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian's Art Changed Science, is a unique title that will appeal to readers on many different levels. More than just a biography, this book reveals the life of Maria Merian in a way that both respects her time period and historical context while making her relatable to contemporary readers. At a time when women had few, if any, choices, Merian pursued her scientific and artistic interests, ran her own business, and traveled extensively. Sidman brings the past to life, including the importance of religion to Merian, without ignoring the many troubling aspects of the time period, including slavery in Surinam. This intriguing blend of history, biography, and science has, at its heart, the story of a girl who followed her dreams and made her own future. I recommend this to fans of the American Girl franchise and Jacqueline Woodson, Lauren Myracle, and Wendy Maas.

For kids who love adventure and can’t imagine any nonfiction being as exciting as a made-up story, hand them Martin Sadler’s Whydah: A Pirate Ship Feared, Wrecked, and Found. This true story of a shipwreck and treasure-hunting will not only grab their attention but just might whet their scientific interests as well. Sadler alternates between the original story of the Whydah and the pirates who sailed on her and the efforts over the years to retrieve her treasure, up to the final, definitive discovery in 1984. Sadler addresses not only the traditional excitement and adventure that is included in the pirate and treasure-hunting mythos, but also addresses the more complex history behind the myth. He talks about the intersection of slavery and piracy, as well as the increasingly scientific methods used for treasure-hunting. This well-researched account will appeal to readers who enjoy fast-paced adventure series like the "39 Clues."

Readers who enjoy a bit of gross humor will be delighted with Carlyn Beccia’s newest tongue-in-cheek compendium of weirdness, They Lost Their Heads!: What Happened to Washington's Teeth, Einstein's Brain, and other Famous Body Parts. From the true fate of Louis XIV’s heart (it got eaten) to the leg of Sarah Bernhardt and the wars of Elvis Presley, this collection of short biographical sketches will have kids giggling and gagging—and learning some history and science along the way. The book is more than just creepy facts though; Beccia includes thoughtful (but still humorous) discussions into the legends behind vampires and zombies, the medical science of organ transplants and cloning, and much more. This ghoulish title won’t need much booktalking, but hand it to readers who love their monsters and zombies, from "Goosebumps" to the novels of John Kloepfer.

Animals are a perennially popular topic and many of my students are miserable when they discover their favorite animal fiction series are no longer “at their level.” A great solution to this problem is Sarah Albee’s newest historical title, Dog Days of History: The Incredible Story of Our Best Friends. Albee investigates the history of our furry friends from the first domesticated dogs to present-day fancy breeds, mutts, and working dogs. In between, she introduces readers to new ideas about how dogs have been used (and, sadly, abused) throughout history; their significance and role in politics, medicine, and even economics; and how we view these treasured animals today. Full of anecdotes and true stories, photographs, paintings, and interesting facts, this book is sure to appeal to dog-lovers’ hearts. Hand this to fans of Kate Klimo’s "Dog Diaries,"  kids who love books by Bobbie Pyron, Laurie Anderson’s "Vet Volunteers," and anyone who loves dogs.

For the celebrity fan who is reluctant to read any books that don’t reference their favorite singer, movie star, sports celebrity, or actress, Kathleen Krull’s newest comedic history, Frenemies in the Family: Famous Brothers and Sisters Who Butted Heads and Had Each Other's Backs, is sure to please. Illustrated with line drawings and interspersed with comics by Maple Lam, the book starts out in a familiar vein for history fans, examining the relationship of famous siblings like Queens Elizabeth I and Mary I. It quickly jaunts off into new territory though, telling the story of conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker, the Disney brothers, Peyton and Eli Manning, and pop stars like Demi Lovato and Madison De La Garza. While this book will have less staying power than others, due to the always-changing popularity of celebrities, its breezy tone and relatable stories of historical and contemporary siblings are sure to grab readers and even get them interested in finding out more about some of the historical personages mentioned. Krull includes a diverse group of siblings and, although dealt with lightly, includes references to various controversial or sensitive topics like Michael Jackson’s plastic surgeries, prejudice faced by Asian Americans in the time of the Bunkers, and the online bullying that Madison De La Garza faced. Slide this onto the shelf by the pop culture magazines and the latest paperback biographies of entertainers and it should fly off the shelf.

Finally, both public librarians and school librarians often face the dilemma of kids who refuse to read anything that’s not a graphic novel—and parents, caregivers, and teachers who want them to read anything else. Kids cling to their favorite stories, just like adults, and it can be difficult to pry a stubborn reader away from "Captain Underpants" or "Bone" to try something new. I’ve been looking at a lot of new titles that blend history and humor, fiction and nonfiction, but the best I’ve discovered so far is Fred Van Lente’s new series, “Action Presidents” starting with Action Presidents #1: George Washington! Black-and-white illustrations tell the story of the nation’s first president, but the additional jokes, plenty of eye-rolling colonists, and a heavy dose of snark are sure to attract readers. Once they’ve been lured in though, they’ll find a book that’s not only humorous and interesting, but informative and thought-provoking as well. Van Lente addresses the role of African Americans in the American Revolution, underlying causes and history dating back to the French-Indian War, the treatment of Native Americans, and plenty of blunt truths about George Washington’s attitude toward slavery and the effects of war on everyday people. The treatment of women is not mentioned as frequently, but it is touched upon as well. Readers will come away with a more accurate picture of the complexity of the American Revolution and an understanding of how this history affects our country today. It's also incredibly funny. Snicker along with the author at George Washington’s early disasters in the military, giggle at his mother’s antics as she tries to keep her son at home, and gloat over the colonists’ trickery as they fool the British into losing the war. Fans of superhero comics, "Lunch Lady," and "Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales" will dive right into this new series and find out that history isn’t so boring after all.

Just like adults, kids can be stubborn about trying new genres, formats, or subjects. They may have had a bad experience previously in being introduced to nonfiction or they just prefer the tropes and characters of fiction and fantasy. But reading critically and widely is an important skill, both in school and in life, and once you’ve induced readers to dip their toes into the seas of nonfiction they will be more willing to take a chance, follow up subjects they’ve gotten interested in, and discover a whole new world of reading.

Works Cited

The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian's Art Changed Science by Joyce Sidman. 2018. HMH. ISBN 9780544717138.

The Whydah: A Pirate Ship Feared, Wrecked, and Found by Martin Sandler. 2017. Candlewick. ISBN 9780763680336.

They Lost Their Heads!: What Happened to Washington's Teeth, Einstein's Brain, and other Famous Body Parts by Carlyn Beccia. 2018. Bloomsbury. ISBN 9780802737458.

Dog Days of History: The Incredible Story of Our Best Friends by Sarah Albee. 2018. National Geographic. ISBN 9781426329715.

Frenemies in the Family: Famous Brothers and Sisters Who Butted Heads and Had Each Other's Backs by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Maple Lam. 2018. Crown. ISBN 9780399551246.

Action Presidents #1: George Washington! by Fred Van Lente, illus. by Ryan Dunlavry. 2018. HarperCollins. ISBN 9780062394057.

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