Best Nonfiction Elementary 2023 | SLJ Best Books

The beginning of life, the stars in the sky, the fungi around us, and some of the hottest topics in biology and science are on display in the best books of 2023 in the elementary nonfiction list. The facts are in: these writers and illustrators help kids connect with the real world in one thrilling book after another. 


Backhouse, Frances. Grizzly Bears: Guardians of the Wilderness. Orca. ISBN 9781459828544.
Gr 4-8–Backhouse spent five months in British Columbia’s North Coast, located in Ts’msyen territory, learning “from the Gwich’in to the Diné, and from the Niitsitapi to the Yup’ik, each group has its own grizzly-bear stories, songs, and dances.” This defining text on a misunderstood species blends science, heart, and deep knowledge.

Charles, Tami. Ketanji Brown Jackson: A Justice for All.illus. by Jemma Skidmore. S.&S. ISBN 9781665935265.
Gr 2-4–Charles and Skidmore unveil the personality behind her calm demeanor while grounding Ketanji Brown Jackson’s story in hard work, focus, and the support system that readers may have witnessed in her confirmation hearings. The paintings are a glorious match for the biography.

Cline-Ransome, Lesa. Loud and Proud: The Life of Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. illus. by Kaylani Juanita. S.&S./Paula Wiseman. ISBN 9781534463523.
Gr 2-5–So much of Chisholm’s historic time in office was about creating different frameworks of resistance and bringing to the table voices previously unheard. Engaging writing with a brilliant use of visual metaphor in Juanita’s extraordinary artwork, plus a divine afterword—this is playful, approachable, important.

Gianferrari, Maria. Fungi Grow. illus. by Diana Sudyka. S.&S./Beach Lane. ISBN 9781665903653.
K-Gr 4–There are too many reasons to thank Gianferrari this year, for elegant nonfiction that becomes unforgettable, as in this compelling look at the life cycle of a mushroom. Sudyka, in lockstep, provides vibrant colors in saturated spreads, in a book about safety and surprises in the wild.

Guillain, Charlotte. The River that Flows Beside Me. illus. by Jo Empson. words & pictures. ISBN 9780711283497.
K-Gr 3–Young readers, from babies to younger elementary students, will never see a river in the same way; Guillain has devised a vibrant concertina with Empson’s bright, semi-realistic illustrations that ingeniously follow a river coursing to the sea. This is an absolutely sensational piece of creativity.

Hodgson, Rob. When Moon Became the Moon. Penguin Workshop/Rise. ISBN 9780593523629.
PreS-Gr 1–Hodgson was ahead of neo-nonfiction that reads like a story but delivers hard science with When Cloud Became a Cloud. This second work is even stronger, placing the sun, moon, and earth in the sky like perennial buddies, and letting the facts about our skies shine. 

Ignotofsky, Rachel. What’s Inside a Caterpillar Cocoon?: And Other Questions About Moths & Butterflies. Crown. ISBN 9780593176573.
K-Gr 3–In small, clever chunks of information, Ignotofsky takes a primary level standard and elevates it into a bright, appealing, comprehensive, and beautiful volume. For classroom or story hours, this offers resources, activities, and inspiration on every page.

Larson, Kirsten W. The Fire of Stars: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of. illus. by Katherine Roy. Chronicle. ISBN 9781452172873.
Gr 2-6–Committee member: “This has everything I dream of: the pairing of an artistic rendering of a birth of a star with the birth of a scientific mind.” Roy’s visuals perfectly capture the parallel stories, star and scientist, with the two texts interlocking into a seamless, dazzling whole.

Obuchowski, David. How Birds Sleep. illus. by Sarah Pedry. minedition. ISBN 9781662650970.
K-Gr 4–In their debut picture book, Obuchowski and Pedry poetically but scientifically answer the question all young children need to know—where do birds sleep? From Bolivia to El Salvador, South Korea to Finland, this global journey is nature writing and illustration at its best, fearlessly addressing climate change as well.

Pearson, Carrie A. Virginia Wouldn’t Slow Down: The Unstoppable Dr. Apgar and Her Life-Saving Invention. illus. by Nancy Carpenter. Norton. ISBN 9781324003939.
Gr 1-3–Recommended reading for all parents with a fidgety, “quirky” child. The possibly dry subject of a five-step evaluation for newborns, a standard today, is leavened by a spirited telling and wonderfully borne out in friendly, even comical scenes. This STEM/STEAM title fits in as Apgar perhaps did not.

Raczka, Bob. You Are a Story. illus. by Kristen & Kevin Howdeshell. Holiday House/Neal Porter. ISBN 9780823449149.
Gr 1-5–A fantastic way of teaching ecology, but more, this book expresses very high-level concepts about humanity and personhood within a positive framework of individuality. In accessible language and pictures, the visual and spoken narratives connect kids to different tangible and intangible ideas to grasp now or later.

Roy, Katherine. Making More: How Life Begins. Norton. ISBN 9781324015840.
Gr 3-6–Roy is having a great year (Larson’s The Fire of Stars ), but this is her breakout book on how life begins and why reproduction is as essential to survival as light and water. Whether the discussion is about spawn, offspring, or propagation of the species, matter-of-fact answers are supported by extraordinarily detailed illustrations and diagrams to make the biology specific. Essential for all shelves, everywhere. Splendid. 

Salazar, Aida. Jovita Wore Pants: The Story of a Mexican Freedom Fighter. illus by Molly Mendoza. Scholastic. ISBN 9781338283419.
Gr 2-5–A gripping, cinematically presented biography of a spirited heroine who always wanted pants so she could ride like the men. When she took up the cause of religious freedom dressed as a boy, she became Juan, known as Mexico’s Joan of Arc. Dynamic, vibrant illustrations accompany a poetic text for a thrilling story about a remarkable person. 

Stelson, Caren. Stars of the Night: The Courageous Children of the Czech Kindertransport. illus. by Selina Alko. Carolrhoda. ISBN 9781541598683.
Gr 3-5–In an uplifting narrative standing in for the voices of young Jewish children, Stelson documents the breathtaking effort to move the children from Prague to England for safety during WWII, saving their lives. Alko’s glorious illustrations give life to history; children will be poring over every page.

Walker, Cameron. National Monuments of the U.S.A. illus. by Chris Turnham. Wide Eyed Eds. ISBN 9780711265493.
Gr 2-4–A fabulous compendium that leaves other monument books in the dust. Walker challenges readers to think about how a monument reflects what we value as a culture. A scrapbook format, a blend of modern facts and history, and delightful illustrations all stand out because of Walker’s examination of the monuments through an equitable lens.

Weatherford, Carole Boston. How Do You Spell Unfair?: MacNolia Cox and the National Spelling Bee. illus. by Frank Morrison. Candlewick. ISBN 9781536215540.
Gr 2-4–Ridiculous obstacles, open racism, and more were put before Cox, whose study habits and grace under pressure pulled her into first place. The storytelling in verse flows beautifully across Morrison’s sculptural scenes of this lanky, unflappable scholar, in the spotlight and behind the scenes, moving toward her inevitable triumph.

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing