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Nabbing Readers: How to Choose Nonfiction Kids will Love

by Susie Wilde

*Originally appeared in the August issue of Kids & Books.*

Looking for nonfiction that improves comprehension and leaves children longing for more? Easy -- choose books that intrigue children. What better support can you offer than selecting a book that children will love reading again and again, and analyzing why it works? You’re on the road to success if you find a book that makes children curious and has depth to encourage conversations. Below find suggestions for nonfiction books that will capture and captivate.

Connect with kids instantly: pick fascinating books

Brilliant authors choose a fascinating subject they love writing about. The combination of accessible writing and suck-you-in subjects results in books children will love reading.

You'll find a fabulous example in Marty Crump’s The Mystery of Darwin’s Frog (Boyds Mill Press, ages 8 and up). This book features an unusual species of frogs in which the male bears the offspring. The mating process begins with what scientist Klaus Busse calls “jump-onto-kick-off” behavior. “The male bumps into the female. Wham! She kicks him with her back legs. The male loses his balance, tumbles away, picks himself up and crashes into the female again. Bam!

The author amps up the appeal by using a sports reporter-like tone to describe this event. Crump's humor and wordplay will also speak to children. “Her babies’ fates,” she writes, “will soon be in her mate’s hands…er, vocal sac” -- where after two months, he “burps up” his young. Re-examining the book will reveal other layers, for example, the way scientific understanding builds over time. The author's personal experience is yet another pleasing facet, not to mention the blend of Edel Rodriguez’s telling photographs with Steve Jenkins' always-remarkable collages.

Select books with art appeal

While nonfiction books with spectacular photographs have become common, it’s a bit more unusual to find a book that boasts stunning art. Brenda Guiberson’s Frog Song (Holt, ages 4-6) takes young readers on a world tour of frogs with simple text that cites interesting facts about 11 frog species. But it is Gennady Spirin’s richly detailed and brilliantly colored realistic illustrations that readers may remember most. In addition to the stupendous artwork, the text font changes to note the frogs’ songs, illuminating bits of text where children can join in the telling.

Find more gorgeous illustrations in Jason Chin's latest book, Island: A Story of the Galapagos, (Roaring Brook, ages 8 and up) which spans 6,000,000 years, noting changes in geology, biology and history in the Galápagos. The large full-page illustrations, smaller sets of pictures and thoughtful graphic design throughout offer visual supporting details intrinsic to the successful impact of the book as they convey how land masses, animal adaptations, and other facets change.

Pick nonfictions animated by the writer’s strong personal connection

One measure of writing success is the way the author’s passion comes across for the subject being covered. This personal understanding and perspective becomes an additional way to hook readers.

Lucy Cooke’s A Little Book of Sloth (McElderry, ages 6 and up) is a photojournalistic essay that sings because of her perspective on sloths she knows and loves. Cooke combines her experience with adorable pictures of her photogenic subjects. She skillfully weaves lots of information about types of sloths and their behavior into a playfully written text that bubbles enthusiastically along until book’s end.

Chuck Close: Face Book (Abrams, ages 7 and up) is an involving autobiography that Close introduces by telling that art twice saved him, first rescuing him from the dyslexia and face blindness of his youth and later the paralysis he faced in adulthood. These significant events link to his career and give a context to both Close’s art and this book. Also worth noting is the author’s decision to present and connect biographical information in a question and answer format, many of which he takes from actual questions he’s been asked by children. Reproductions of Close’s self-portraits are shown in a unique flip-book format that invites observations and theorizing about why he has presented them in this way.

Consider books with a playful approach

Just because a book is nonfiction doesn’t mean it has to be serious. Happily, the number of books with a playful tone and humorous details are increasing, which is no wonder, since this combination is sure to succeed with children.

David Adler’s Millions, Billions & Trillions: Understanding Big Numbers (Holt, ages 6-9) has humorous artwork and bold fonts that accent the ever-increasing zeros of growing numbers. The author further enlivens the telling with near-silly examples of the immensity of numbers. The examples are so child-centric that they make the hugeness of numbers understandable and keep the audience engaged. For example, one of the early pages shows a towering stack of pizza boxes to demonstrate how many slices $1,000,000 would buy.

Pull kids in with photographs

Realistic photographs not only confirm the reality of the subject, they invite children to step into the book’s world.

Step Gently Out (Candlewick, ages 4-7) is inviting, but it's Lieder’s photography that seems particularly apt for a book about observing nature. Even before the text begins, flyleaf illustrations show a bumble bee pausing in midair as if it slowed to offer human readers a better look. A page turn presents a new view as it perches on a purple flower. Words add to the visual images as the text encourages readers, “Step gently out, be still and watch a single blade of grass.” Caterpillar, ant, cricket and spider appear, all viewed in close proximity, with photographs and text detailed in a way that suggests the kind of connection that comes through slow, careful observation.

Nic Bishop’s photographs always add to the power of his subjects and Nic Bishop Snakes (Scholastic ages 7 and up) is no exception. Bishop’s fascinating facts, shared through descriptive writing, are made more compelling because of the lively photographs that invite children to admire and be astounded by the subject.

Deborah Lee Rose and Susan Kelly capture the moving story of Jimmy the Joey: The True Story of an Amazing Koala Rescue (National Geographic, ages 6-8). When the small koala’s mother is killed by a speeding car, the small joey is ambulanced to the Koala hospital for care. The story has a strong narrative flow, but the pictures make the little animal orphan even more endearing.

Appeal to children’s sense of strange

Grotesque, bizarre, and disgusting are three characteristics that entice all children -- whether in the way the author writes, or through the subject chosen. The books that begin with children saying “ew" often end the reading experience with an “ah” as they learn fascinating facets of the subjects that draw them in.

Nicola Davies, Deadly! The Truth About The Most Dangerous Creatures on Earth (Candlewick, ages 8 and up). “Stabbing and strangling. Poisoning and drowning, electrocuting, exploding and even death by gluing! No, this isn’t a description of a horror movie -- it’s some of the ways that animals kill one another.” Could you put the book down after that stellar first sentence? The tongue-in-cheek tone continues in both illustration and text through almost twenty chapter-like sequences with compelling key details that animate the topic.

In terms of fascinatingly repulsive subjects, you can’t beat Sarah and Richard Campbell’s photo-rich essay, Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator (Boyds Mills Press, ages 3-6) or April Pulley Sayre’s disgusting descriptions of the search for food that “reeks” in Vulture View (Holt, ages 3-6).

Judging a book by appearance: readability

Sometimes a child won’t pick up a book if it doesn’t look inviting! Readable text size and font set the stage for an involving reader experience. Maps, timelines, and clear labeling of illustrations are all appreciated by children.

Penelope Arlon’s Reptiles (part of the Scholastic Discover More series) is for ages 6 and up. Not only is the primary text large and clear, each page has appeal because of the additional photographs and child-friendly trivia.

Sandra Markle is masterful at making books physically appealing. In Bats: Biggest! Littlest! (Boyds Mill Press, ages 6 and up) she uses dramatic photos that convey her subject well, each further defined and extended with word descriptions. Small bits of bat trivia in text boxes also propel young readers through the book.

The intriguing subject of Matt Doeden’s Deadly Venomous Animals (Lerner, ages 6 and up) is enhanced by a readable main text and a variety of text features that define words, further text understanding, and explain the striking photographs.

There’s nothing better to aid new readers than giving them nonfictions with short readable chapters, large text, and clearly labeled photographs. Find these in Gail Tuchman’s Shark Attack! and Laaren Brown’s Volcanoes: Run for your Life (both part of Scholastic’s Discover More Readers, ages 5 and up).

Inviting Children into the Information

The best nonfiction encourages active engagement in the reading experience. Posing questions, tempting kids to guess or featuring a subject that demands thoughtful opinions are certain paths to readers' participation.

Questions are key in Jane Brocket’s Spiky, Slimy, Smooth: What Is Texture? (Millbrook Press, ages 3-6). She even begins with a question, “Touch your nose, how does it feel? The way something feels is called texture.” Brocket continuously offers adults playful places to pause and allow younger children to answer before proceeding with the text. As photographs and strong senses describe the textural world, Brocket returns again and again to questions that invite children to give their input.

Laura Hulbert sets up her nonfiction as a guessing game in Who Has This Tail? (Holt, ages 2-5). The first page is a perfect introduction to a pattern that follows through the entire book. One page asks the question and shows a part of the animal’s tail. Turning the page reveals the answer as well as information about how the animal uses it. Throughout, the nonfiction text is quite dependent on visual images. That and the playful guessing pattern make it a perfect fit for young audiences. The ending is even more visual, as double pages show all the animals discussed previously and offer a closure coda: “Who has these tails?”

For older children, choosing nonfiction that evokes feelings, thoughts, emotions and opinions is an effective way to involve them. These books have a good balance of information that impacts, moderated with hope:

  • Dorothy Hinshaw Patent’s photojournalistic view of what happened to Michael Vick’s rescued dogs, Saving Audie: A Pit Bull Puppy Gets a Second Chance requires a sophisticated reader (Walker, ages 10 and up).
  • Martin Jenkins’ Can We Save the Tiger? (Candlewick, ages 9 and up) is a complex view of endangered animals sure to call forth thoughtful responses.

You’ll note that some of the books noted above may have more than one type of appeal. And isn’t that a good thing? Be on the lookout for nonfictions that have one or more compelling characteristics.

How to choose nonfiction kids will love? Look for:

  • A scintillating subject (strange and scary make for sure-fire success)
  • Writing that hooks readers (playfulness, intensity and easy flow are fabulous indicators)
  • Visual Strength (art with appeal and captivating photographs will bring readers into the subject)
  • An author who clearly loves the topic (passion and clarity result in luring readers)
  • Child-centric details and descriptions (these easily establish a relationship between books and their readers)
  • A layout that encourages children to either linger, or breeze through the pages (small boxes of attention-grabbing trivia and visual aspects that attract readability)
  • Inviting words (asking readers questions, or setting up a structure for guessing involve readers)

Editor's note: Looking for ways to search specifically by appeal terms? NoveList can help! Try these:

  • Tone: Gross; Funny and attention-grabbing
  • Writing style: Browsable and easy-to-understand
  • Illustration appeal terms: Photographic or cartoony

From the advanced search page, select an age level (ages 9-12) and nonfiction as limiters. From the search result page, type the appeal term of interest (example: "browsable") then select Appeal Factors from drop-down menu. From the search results, you can narrow your results further, by subject or other appeal factors.


Susie Wilde (ignitingwriting.com), a read-aloud advocate and children's book crusader for over thirty years, has reviewed for magazines and newspapers and shared her favorite titles with children, parents, and teachers. She contributes book expertise to NoveList.