08 May 2020

4 True Stories: Nonfiction for Young Readers and the Whole Family

As you know, I’m a huge fan of serious nonfiction written for younger readers, but you might not know why. First, I don’t think kids need to be talked down to. When children have a true interest in a subject—history, science, art, music—they want to know everything, not just a watered-down version. If a concept is confusing or difficult, they’ll ask questions, try to figure it out, or have faith they’ll find the answers eventually.

Second, serious nonfiction written for middle grade readers is a perfect first stop for curious teens and adults. I always learn something (actually lots of somethings) when I read science, nature, or history written for children. Finally, I like the idea that these books are perfect for family involvement. When my nieces and nephews were young, nonfiction was often a bridge between the generations.

So, take note: even if you don’t have any youngsters in your life, don’t turn your back on nonfiction written for middle grade readers. Here are four 2020 releases I can recommend to you, your family, and your children.

Nonfiction recommendations for young readersExtreme Ocean: Amazing Animals, High-Tech Gear, Record-Breaking Depths, and More by Sylvia Earle with Glen Phalen (National Geographic Children’s Books; March 3). This beautiful book is written by a well-known, well-respected marine biologist and National Geographic explorer-in-residence. Earle tells the story of her beloved oceans in accessible and fun, yet fact-filled language. She takes us on a watery adventure, introducing us to the power and awe-inspiring characteristics of our oceans: the after effects of a tsunami, the life of whales, and what we’d see in the deepest ocean trenches. We learn about icebergs, tidal pools, coral reefs, and kelp forests. Peppered throughout the text are all kinds of interesting facts and trivia. I think my favorite parts were learning about the technology that allows scientists to explore life underwater: sonar, scuba, diving suits, Sealab, and underwater robotic cameras. Earle tells us about the wonders of the ocean, but she also helps us understand how and why our oceans are in peril from pollution, over fishing, and climate change. She doesn’t end on a down note, however; she offers promise and practical advice on how we—and I mean you and I and our children—can save our oceans. The books is overflowing with National Geographic’s signature gorgeous photographs and graphics. I can’t say enough good things about Extreme Ocean.

Nonfiction recommendations for young readersCharles Darwin and the Voyage of the Beagle by Ruth Ashby (Peachtree, Feb. 1). This short biography introduces readers to Darwin’s voyage around the world and his observations and discoveries that eventually changed our views of the interplay between living organisms and their environment. Ashby includes Darwin’s own words, taken from his letters and his journals: we learn that the intrepid biologist suffered from seasickness and other illnesses but was awestruck by much of what he saw. He was a careful observer of nature—cataloging numerous species of insects, birds, fish, and mammals—and also had opinions (not always favorable) about the behavior and customs of the people and cultures he was exposed to over the five-year journey. The book ends with his return home, the publication of On the Origin of Species, his death, a chronology, and a short bibliography. Ashby’s biography is a well-written first step for readers interested in Darwin, 19th-century exploration and science, and the foundation of our current knowledge of evolution.

Nonfiction recommendations for young readersThe Story of Seeds: Our Food Is in Crisis. What Will You Do to Protect It? by Nancy Castaldo (HMH BYR, Jan. 14): This gem of a book is all about preserving our food supply by saving the very seeds that grow it. We all love seedless oranges, cucumbers, and watermelons, but did you realize there was an ecological risk to having that luxury? We start our exploration of seeds by learning about Mendel, Burbank, and the first seed collector (Vavilov) and then read about the importance of variety, the effects of hybridization, the dangers of blights and wilts, and why we need seed banks (and whether they’re enough to protect our food supply). I particularly liked the sections on heirloom varieties and farmer’s markets and the differences between hybridization and GMO; I learned about biopiracy and seed warriors, and—most important—how to help, what actions I can take right now, and where to find more information. The book is richly illustrated with full-color photographs, and graphic elements help point out important facts and definitions. This year it’s more important than ever to support your local farmers and to preserve biodiversity in our food supply.

Nonfiction recommendations for young readersSpaceman: The True Story of a Young Boy’s Journey to Becoming an Astronaut by Mike Massimino (Delacorte BYR, Apr. 7). Although I’m a big advocate of directing your young readers to the adult sections of the bookstore or library, I also appreciate good, solid autobiography specifically directed to middle graders. Massimino was just seven years old when humans first walked on the moon, and from that time on, he dreamed of becoming an astronaut. His story is not all roses and glitter, though; Massimino tells us about his difficulties in school, not having money to go to college, being turned down by NASA (more than once!), and how nervous he was when undergoing physical exams. On the other side of the coin, he shares his excitement when he finally got the call and describes his wonder and awe at watching Earth from the darkness of space, his experiences as a spacewalker, and how he became the first person to tweet from space. This edition of Massimino’s story is not dumbed down or written in childish language and is appropriate for anyone wishing to know more about a modern-day hero and for those of us who need to be reminded that hard work and determination often really do make our dreams come true.


rhapsodyinbooks 5/8/20, 6:27 AM  

I totally agree with your first and second paragraphs. And the third, for that matter! I love books by Steve Sheinkin, for example - while they are marketed as middle grade, I object! Unless the point is that middle graders can read them also, of course! All of those you highlighted sound great - thanks for describing them. I can't wait till libraries open again so I can check on these.

Mae Travels 5/8/20, 9:58 AM  

Thanks for the tip -- I just ordered "The Story of Seeds." Anything about the food supply is important right now.

be well... mae at maefood.blogspot.com

bermudaonion 5/8/20, 12:02 PM  

I love nonfiction for kids too.

sherry fundin 5/8/20, 12:34 PM  

wonderful selections. i especially like extreme ocean
sherry @ fundinmental

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