If you’re anything like me, the term nonfiction can often evoke early school memories of dry exposition and paragraphs overstuffed with information. However, as I got older, I began to appreciate these texts. They can be every bit as interesting and inspiring as fiction texts, and much like works of fiction, they need a good writer to steer the ship. They can have an exciting story like John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood or maybe inspire emotion and offer a call to action like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, or maybe they reveal history in a unique or artistic way like Art Spiegelman’s Maus.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of dry, boring nonfiction picture books with outdated information, prejudiced text and illustrations, and pages and pages of overlong exposition designed to give young readers a thorough—but not necessarily interesting—overview of a topic.
Find an Intriguing Topic to Introduce Kids to Nonfiction
For my students, all of that changed with a frog. Specifically, the red-eyed tree frog. In the book Red-Eyed Tree Frog, by Joy Cowley, readers are taken on a journey during one night in the rain forest as the title character searches for something to eat. The book contains all the hallmarks of a classic picture book. Yet, instead of hand-drawn illustrations telling the story, it contains photographs of a real animal as it navigates its often perilous home.
My preschoolers love this book and often request it during circle time. One school year, a student connected so deeply with the red-eyed tree frog that he even asked his mother to buy him one (he settled for a stuffed animal).
So, what made Red-Eyed Tree Frog a classroom classic? The same things that make a good fiction book apply to nonfiction books (even for preschoolers). The reader can easily follow the story and glean some information about the subject. This book also contains excitement and emotion as the frog not only searches for food but avoids becoming food itself, narrowly escaping danger in some cases.
The photographs of the frog are endearing, and they encourage the reader to bond with the main character and root for them. Finally, the story lends itself to reflection and critical thinking. Cowley weaves information into the story in such a natural way that the reader doesn’t realize it’s happening. Instead of explaining how red-eyed tree frogs are nocturnal, the story starts with the sun going down in the jungle and the frog rousing from its slumber.
This presents the teacher and students with an opportunity to discuss the frog’s sleeping patterns and come to the same conclusion on their own. In short, the book doesn’t talk down to its audience—it gives the reader the information they need to appreciate the story and lets them put together the rest.
Consider a Variety of Nonfiction Titles for Your Preschoolers
Nonfiction presents many great opportunities for learning, but just like fiction, it also allows even the youngest of readers to appreciate the literary talent that goes into each work. Here are some of my classroom favorites that you might enjoy too!
For kids who love animals:
What Do You Do With a Tail Like This?, by Robin Page, illustrated by Steve Jenkins, asks readers to guess how animals use the different parts of their body in unique ways, which inspires conversation and creates a puzzle for readers to solve.
All the Birds in the World, by David Opie, teaches young readers about birds from the perspective of a dejected Kiwi who only wants to know how they fit in with the rest of their species.
Bethany Barton’s book I’m Trying to Love Spiders not only characterizes the way many people (myself included) feel but also validates that icky feeling we see when a spider crawls into our view, while also leaving the reader with some interesting facts, a few good jokes, and hopefully a new appreciation for these rarely loved creatures.
For kids who love adventure:
Eve Bunting’s Ducky, which depicts the story of a shipment of bath toys that fell overboard and eventually washed up miles away for months on end, has all the thrills of a great adventure story.
Mae Among the Stars, by Roda Ahmed, and Shark Lady, by Jess Keating, illustrated by Marta Álvarez Miguéns, are surprisingly touching biographies of women who defied cultural expectations and followed their passions to become pioneers in their fields. Both take readers on riveting adventures to the depths of the ocean and the vastness of outer space!
For kids who have a creative spirit:
A Is for Art Museum, by Katy Friedland and Marla K. Shoemaker, uses the Philadelphia Art Museum as a jumping-off point for inspiring conversations among the class about the function, intent, and purpose of art. It also allows young readers to make connections between their own lives and the events depicted in the paintings, sculptures, and artifacts presented in the book.
Shades of People, by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly, inspires readers to appreciate the beauty and diversity among all people and love what makes them unique as individuals.
Fry Bread, by Kevin Noble Maillard, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal, reveals the history and culture behind a beloved food and provides a recipe so that the reader can extend their learning and experience this delicacy for themselves.
For kids who are exploring their emotions:
Books such as Sophie Beer’s Love Makes a Family and Tough Guys Have Feelings Too, by Toby Keith Negley, take on two very different topics, but neither will leave you with a dry eye. Both books encourage young readers to embrace their identities in different ways—whether it’s through appreciating the uniqueness of their own family or recognizing that it’s OK to show your feelings.
Nonfiction stories can even inspire some laughs! The classic book Everyone Poops, by Taro Gomi, destigmatizes potty training by fully embracing potty humor. It’s a fact of life that everyone needs to use the bathroom, and young readers (and, to be honest, their teachers) will laugh hysterically at this acknowledgment of how nature calls. The book is written with surprising wit, inspiring encouragement, and sensitivity to young learners’ perspectives.
There are plenty of great nonfiction books out there for you and your students. And while I hope you enjoyed reading about some of my favorites, don’t stop here. There’s always more to learn!