I am developing a great affection and enjoyment for nonfiction picture books. The picture book seems well-adapted to the telling of a short episode from history or a scientific breakthrough or observation in concise prose with pictures to illuminate the story. The following narrative picture books would be great for “doing history” or “doing science” with elementary age children, and each one is a good introduction to an historical events, famous person, or scientific concept for even older students.
Impossible Voyage of Kon-tiki by Deborah Kogan Ray. Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft has been required reading in many schools for more than a generation. I was assigned to read it more than 40 years ago. But I didn’t finish it because, frankly, at the time, I was bored by the minute by minute account of Heyerdahl’s voyage across the Pacific. This picture book account of the journey could be a doorway into the story of Mr. Heyerdahl’s experiment to see if ancient South American inhabitants could have voyaged by raft to the islands of the Pacific.
The House That George Built by Suzanne Slade. The building of the White House. See my review here.
The Boy Who Fell Off the Mayflower, or John Howland’s Good Fortune by P.J. Lynch. Candlewick, September 2015. I haven’t read this one yet, but I’m told it’s an absorbing account of the Mayflower immigrants and their journey to the HNew World.
Mahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and Queens by Nina Nolan. Amistad, January 2015. This picture book biography of the great gospel singer is limited in informational value, but quite lovely and inspiring. The book should inspire children to listen to Mahalia Jackson’s music, and that in itself self makes the book worthwhile.
Ira’s Shakespeare Dream by Glenda Armand. Lee & Low, August 2105. Ira Aldridge dreamed of becoming a great Shakespearean actor, but in the early 1800’s, for a black man, it seemed impossible. Nevertheless, with determination and perseverance, Mr. Aldridge was able to become a celebrated and accomplished actor, even though he had to emigrate to England to make his dream a reality.
The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch by Chris Barton. Eerdmans, April 2015. John Roy Lynch was a field slave who became a photographer, then Justice of the Peace, then Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives, and then a U.S. Representative. His climb from slavery to Congress is chronicled in Chris Barton’s book. Semicolon review here.
Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music by Margarita Engle. Newbury honor winner Margarita Engle writes a poem-story about 1930’s and 40’s Cuban jazz drummer Millo Castro Zaldarriaga. The book makes lovely use of words and phrases to evoke drums and music and a Caribbean atmosphere.
Spic-and-Span! Lillian Gilbreth’s Wonder Kitchen by Monica Kulling. Illustrated by David Parkins. Tundra Books, 2014. If you’re a fan of Frank Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey’s Cheaper by the Dozen and its sequel Belles on their Toes, this picture book biography of the mother of the clan, Lillian Gilbreth, will certainly be a welcome addition to your reading list. Semicolon review here.
Elvis: The Story of the Rock and Roll King by Bonnie Christensen. Elvis’s boyhood and early career are the focus of this picture book biography, with a long, tall two page spread illustration of Elvis and his guitar placed at the climax of the story when Elvis recorded his first hit song, That’s All Right. The book emphasizes Elvis’s youth, summarizing the bulk of Elvis Presley’s career with these words at the end: “With echoes of gospel, country, jazz, and blues, Elvis’ voice touched the hearts and souls of millions, then, now, and always.”
Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh by Sally M. Walker. A delightful lead-in or accompaniment to a read or re-read of Winnie the Pooh, which is always a good thing at any age.
Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews by Kathleen Benson. Benny Andrews, African American painter, illustrator, and printmaker, provides a role model and an example for aspiring young artists. His story is told succinctly, but expansively, in this biography, and the illustrations from Mr. Andrews’ own work make the story even richer.
A Nest Is Noisy by Dianna Hutts Aston. Ms. Aston, the celebrated author of A Seed Is Sleepy and An Egg Is Quiet, is back with a treatise on nests of all sorts and sizes for young naturalists to savor.
Emmanuel’s dream: the true story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson. Cybil’s nonfiction finalist. Emmanuel, born with only one leg, shows Ghana, and then the world, how people with disabilities can do important, world-changing work.