How to Get Kids Hooked on Nonfiction Books This Summer

| July 12, 2013 | 17 Comments
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The long hot days of summer are the perfect time for kids to hone their knowledge of the wizard world, King Arthur’s court or the magical land of Narnia. And while many summer reading lists are sent home with the hope that students will bone up on fiction during the dog days, reading nonfiction can be just as beneficial — and just as exciting — as a great novel. And though some kids might balk at choosing to read a “science” book for summer fun, children’s author Vicki Cobb says that’s only because they haven’t been exposed to the right books.

In an effort to put more high-quality nonfiction into students’ hands, Cobb has created the iNK Think Tank, an organization of award-winning children’s authors who write Common Core-aligned nonfiction books for kids of all ages. (During the school year, iNK will even bring the authors to classrooms, via videoconference, to discuss their books directly with students.) For summer science reading, Cobb wants students to know about true stories that contain both captivating stories and science themes.

“There are many science books that are narratives and biographies that are fascinating,” Cobb said. “Tanya Stone’s Almost Astronauts tells the story of the first women who trained along with the men for the Mercury program, but never got to fly. And Deborah Heiligman’s Charles and Emma tells the love story between Charles Darwin and his wife Emma, who was deeply religious. Darwin dragged his feet in publishing Origin of the Species because he had to write it so that it wouldn’t offend his wife’s religious beliefs.”

Cobb notes that great nonfiction writers employ the same literary devices as fiction writers, with a definitive advantage: every word is true. “There is no invented dialogue or sugar-coating by anthropomorphizing subject matter. But literary devices, including poetry, foreshadowing, irony, and metaphor, are all present.”

Yet iNK Think Tank’s efforts to increase children’s nonfiction diets are in sharp contrast to what kids are consuming: according to a 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, children spend about four minutes a day reading nonfiction, and Publisher’s Weekly reported that, last year, kids bought four times more fiction than nonfiction.

Cobb says kids don’t read as much nonfiction because teachers and parents don’t know where to find the good stuff – a large reason why she started iNK. And, after getting good books to parents and teachers, Cobb says it’s important to realize that some science books need to be read differently than plopping down with a novel. For example, in one middle-school book about sound, “Bangs and Twangs,” Cobb encourages readers to stop periodically and try out certain concepts, from making noise with their bodies to producing sound with household objects. “Science is not about passive reading,” she writes. “It’s all about active involvement. In other words, following this book models the behavior of scientists.”

Consuming true stories might also be beneficial to kids’ academic growth. Reading nonfiction builds students’ background knowledge, which is essential to reading comprehension, according to CitizenshipFirst Executive Director (and former Core Knowledge Communications Director) Robert Pondiscio. So much nonfiction is included in the Common Core State Standards, he said, in part because “building knowledge is building literacy.” Comprehension requires that the reader know something about what she’s reading.

“Speakers and readers assume a shared body of vocabulary and background knowledge. When there are gaps in knowledge and vocabulary, comprehension breaks down,” Pondiscio said. “In short, lots of nonfiction means lots of background knowledge. And that enhances kids’ abilities to make correct inferences and contextualize accurately when they read.”

Both Pondiscio and Cobb mention that one benefit of reading nonfiction is that it helps kids look outward, not inward, and science-based nonfiction is a great way to learn about the world. Pondiscio said kids might perceive nonfiction as not quite as exciting as fiction because humans are “hardwired for narrative,” but that the history of civilization and progress, from history to science and technology, is a true story but also a grand narrative, “and we should teach it that way.”

So what should young scientists read this summer? Cobb has included a list of iNK Think Tank’s favorite science books below (including her own) — science biographies and narratives, plus some books full of experiments. Cobb suggests finding books that connect experiments with what kids already know about life and nature – otherwise they might incur what she calls “the ‘so what?’ factor.” Good science activity books ask questions, Cobb said, and give procedures for open-ended discovery, “so that the thinking child can continue the quest afterwards.”

Grades K-3

Rah, Rah, Radishes! by April Sayre

I Get Wet, by Vicki Cobb

The Beetle Book, by Steve Jenkins

If You Hopped Like a Frog, by David M. Schwartz

From Caterpillar to Butterfly, by Deborah Heiligman

Will It Blow? Become a Volcano Detective at Mount St. Helens, by Elizabeth Rusch

All in Just One Cookie, by Susan Goodman


Grades 4-8

Lizards, by Sneed B. Collard III

The Frog Scientist, by Pamela Turner

Bug Shots: The Good, the Bad and the Bugly, by Alexandr Siy’s

A Life in the Wild: George Shaller’s Struggle to Save the Last Great Beasts, by Pamela Turner

Genius: A Photobiography of Albert Einstein, by Marfé Ferguson Delano

A Whale Biologist at Work, by Sneed Collard

Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith, by Deborah Heiligman

For the Birds: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson, by Peggy Thomas

How Ben Franklin Stole the Lightning, by Rosalyn Schanzer,

Marie Curie: a Photographic Story of a Life, by Vicki Cobb.

Some books combine Science with Social Studies:

Almost Astronauts: 13 Women who Dared to Dream, by Tanya Lee Stone

The Buffalo and the Indians, by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent

What Darwin Saw: The Journey That Changed the World, by Rosalyn Schanzer

Everglades Forever: Restoring American’s Great Wetland, by Trish Marx,

Monteverde: Science and Scientists in a Costa Rican Cloud Forest, by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent.

Grades 9-12:

Good examples of books suitable for high school readers as well as middle school students:

Biodiversity, by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent

Cars on Mars: Roving the Red Planet, by Alexandra Siy

The Head Bone’s Connected to the Neck Bone: The Weird, Wacky and Wonderful X-ray, by Carla McClafferty

Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, by Steve Sheinkin.


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  • Barbara Ann Mojica

    Great article….I believe in this and that is why I write nonfiction picture books.

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  • Alexandra Siy

    Thanks for the article on nonfiction books for kids!

  • Teacher

    This is disgusting and malpractice. People making millions from writing “common core” aligned books? How fake. What is a common core aligned book? This is a boondoggle.

    • Vicki Cobb

      First, the Common Core State Standards is not IN books. It is in the way we use the books, to read, to learn and to synthesize new information. Second, writing nonfiction for children is a difficult way to make a living, let alone make millions. We are people who have a passion for learning and pass that passion on to our readers. “Passion” means that you’re willing to suffer for what you believe in.

      • animalauthor

        Teacher, educate thyself! Vicki is exactly correct–I’m a nonfiction children’s book author of many, many titles and am certainly not “making millions” from my writing. It’s a passion of mine to share my love of animals with kids of all ages through my books–money has nothing to do with it, and I frequently suffer with countless peanut butter sandwiches!

  • Dorothy Hinshaw Patent

    Monteverde: Science and Scientists in a Costa Rican Cloud Forest, is written by Sneed B. Collard, not by me. I helped Vicki with the list, and somehow Sneed’s name got deleted as I edited my version of the list.

    Dorothy Hinshaw Patent

  • Natalie Dias Lorenzi

    Great article–thanks for posting it! I’d also add Cynthia Levinson’s WE’VE GOT A JOB: THE 1963 BIRMINGHAM CHILDREN’S MARCH. We’re really trying to beef up our biography section in our library, so I especially appreciate your biography recs.

  • Jenny Maehara

    Have you heard about Star Walk Kids free eBooks in July deal? Seymour Simon wanted a “Pop Up Library” to be available to kids for free this summer on the internet:

    The set of free books is here:

    It’s a pretty phenomenal set of eBooks (and there’s LOTS of nonfiction). Goes hand in hand with your post!

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  • Sandra Mc

    Our high school supports self-selected reading so our fiction circulation in the library is quite high. Personally I prefer non-fiction but it’s harder to “sell” to the students. I’m always looking for non-fic recommendations, but they often seem written for middle school. Seeing even a few recommendations targeted to high school readers is helpful. We need more!

  • Elvira Griffith

    A few days back when I was searching the story books for my children I got a beautiful source for children’s books. I bought a bunch of good books :)

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  • Melissa Lewis Kozlowski

    My son, a rising 7th grader, just read “How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous” By Georgia Bragg and absolutely loved it. He was so fascinated with the facts he was learning he had to come tell me about each person as soon as he finished reading about them. Even though it is usually painful to get him to write he even enjoyed composing the essay. The content is a little gory, but compared to the fiction he reads about vampires,werewolves, and ghosts it was actually rather tame.

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  • Simon

    Nice article! Our kids really love interactive non-fiction iBooks, like the Duh-series. They are also really great value compared to hard-copy books.

  • Ira Bickoff

    I am a high school science teacher and the way I engage students in reading nonfiction is through Google Earth chapter tours. The books I have adapted are classic, primary source with maritime themes. The material is at:

    Feel free to share it.