6 Noteworthy Nonfiction Picture Books

Me: “That school must be named after Lise Meitner. Didn’t she do something with uranium?” {the school in question was on a TV show and was “for the gifted.”}

My PhD Engineer hubby: “I have no idea. Never heard of her.”

Me: “You haven’t?! Wow. Amazing what you can learn from children’s literature!”

It’s true: you can learn a LOT from nonfiction picture books, no matter how old you are! The nonfiction picture books below are excellent examples and profile a wide variety of people. Several are recent award winners/honors, and one should have been. Don’t miss the starred review at the end! Bonus: many will work for Black History Month, too.

6 Noteworthy Nonfiction Picture Books

Nothing Stopped Sophie: The Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain by Cheryl Bardoe and illustrated by Barbara McClintock. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2018. 40 pages.

Sophie Germain was a woman and a mathematician at a time when women simply weren’t mathematicians–or, at least, not expected to be. But nothing stopped Sophie: not her society’s expectations, not lack of education, not rejection. And eventually, she discovered some of the amazing math behind vibrations at a time when all around her was vibrating in more ways than one (France, during the French Revolution). Illustrations are incredibly effective additions to this interesting story about the intersection of math, science, curiosity, and perseverance. Don’t miss the back matter. Ages 6-10.

Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly and illustrated by Laura Freeman. HarperCollins, 2018. 40 pages.

Any picture book version of a full length adult text will leave information out. However, illustrations can do a lot to make up for the missing details! Freeman’s illustrations for this book earned her a Coretta Scot King honor for illustrations, and they are indeed lovely. Additional features like an illustrated timeline, small biographies of each woman, a glossary, and detailed author’s note at the back enhance this nonfiction picture book. It will serve best as an introduction to the women profiled or as an addition to an exploration of the space race, not as well as a book on its own. Ages 6-10.

Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles by Patricia Valdez and illustrated by Felicita Sala. Knopf, 2018. 40 pages.

Joan Procter loved reptiles. She loved reptiles so much she even had a crocodile as a pet! Poor health kept Joan from pursuing academic studies on reptiles, but her hobby blossomed into a career at a natural history museum and a reptile exhibit at a zoo. She contributed much to the scientific study of these creeping, slithering friends. Lively text and equally vibrant illustrations combine for a very fun read. Winner of the Cybils Award for Elementary Nonfiction, this book will delight young reptile lovers everywhere.

Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop: The Sanitation Strike of 1968 by Alice Faye Duncan and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. Calkins Creek, 2018. 40 pages.

Need a nonfiction picture book for older readers? Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop is a good starting point, particularly if you’re studying the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement involved more than bus boycotts, famous speeches, and school integration. The sanitation strike of 1968 provides a good look at racial equality on several fronts as well as highlighting the brave actions of ordinary people. Duncan’s text is lengthy (for a picture book), and Christie’s illustrations are often sobering; the timeline in the end offers context. Coretta Scot King honor for illustrations. Ages 8-12.

Let the Children March by Monica Clark-Robinson and illustrated by Frank Morrison. HMH, 2018. 40 pages.

Another Coretta Scot King illustrator honor, and another title about the Civil Rights Movement, this is also another great nonfiction picture book for middle-upper elementary kids. Children can–and did–get involved in important political movements. Morrison’s illustrations are fantastic, mixing perspectives for maximum impact. This one should provoke some interesting discussion! Ages 6-10.

*So Tall Within: Sojourner Truth’s Long Walk Toward Freedom by Gary D. Schmidt and illustrated by Daniel Mintner. Roaring Brook Press, 2018. 48 pages.

The most striking nonfiction picture book I’ve seen in a year, So Tall Within is not to be missed. Schmidt’s poetic text is arresting, but Mintner’s illustrations take the text to the next level. His use of symmetry, the thematic connections of seeds growing, and a stark contrasting palette combine to dramatic effect: readers should stop and ponder. Elementary students can enjoy this book, but it would make a stellar introduction to Sojourner Truth for middle school, and even high school, students, particularly if students are invited to notice the layers in the text and illustrations. *indicates starred review. Ages 8-15.

Readers, have you seen any of these? Which is your favorite?

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