Amazon’s list of bestselling children’s nonfiction contains a surprising amount of fiction. It’s possible that there a lot of self-published authors in the Kindle Store who don’t know the difference between fiction and nonfiction. It’s also possible that Amazon’s algorithm is going to show you Vegetables in Underwear no matter what children’s books you search for.
Even if it was simple to find great children’s nonfiction online, you might not want to buy it anyway. Your child’s interests may change overnight, so that shiny collection of space books may quickly be ignored in favor for a new obsession.
So you head to your local library, where you can max out your library card with space books this week and frog books next week. The library brings problems of its own, though. Some local branches will have limited nonfiction collections, and the quality varies. At my library, there’s a bunch of advertisements masquerading as books, often with toy tie-ins or film synopses (I’m looking at you, LEGO planets book). The best written books are nestled right next to the junk, which is by design among the most colorful on display.
Some of the strategies I’ve suggested for finding children’s fiction can help. Knowing the publishers of your child’s favorite books, for example, lets you search those publishers’ websites for their children’s nonfiction titles. I’ve also written about how to find children’s nonfiction on a specific topic, including how to mine negative reviews for clues. A few more specialized strategies can help you find thoughtful, well-illustrated children’s nonfiction that can teach your child—and you!—something new.
Browse, don’t search
Children’s nonfiction is a huge category that we rarely browse. We don’t walk bookstores or libraries aimlessly, open to finding whatever children’s nonfiction leaps out to us. Instead, we hunt for books to satisfy our little explorers. So it’s “children’s books about space,” or “children’s books about animals,” or “children’s books about cooking.”
In a textbook for college writers, my mentor David Kellogg advised wandering the stacks to "let chance, the romance of the dusty volume, guide you to your next intellectual obsession." That advice holds true for the children's section too.
The nonfiction stacks are full of treasures waiting to be discovered. We've recently found Jen Bryant and Boris Kulikov's Six Dots, an accessible biography of Louis Braille that suffers only a little for its not being in Braille. We've found MoMA's collection of children's art books, and Jenny Broom's The Wonder Garden, a gorgeous animal atlas. Last weekend I opened an origami guide and a tiny lavender spaceship fell out. Kids’ nonfiction is full of surprises.
If you’re lucky enough to have a huge children’s nonfiction section, reacquaint yourself with the Dewey Decimal System and attack it by subject, starting with whatever your child’s obsessed with at the moment and
Check the date
The highest praise of much children’s literature is that it is timeless, which is why we’re all still reading Goodnight Moon and why I will never tire of Elephant & Piggie. But a lot of children’s nonfiction is outdated. If your child's obsession is scientific or technical, books published outside of the last decade may be hopelessly behind.
When you do accidentally come home with a book that claims Pluto is still a planet, you have a great opportunity to teach your kids that facts change. If you’d prefer more up-to-date material, all you have to do is check the publication year. Your library may include the year on the tag at the bottom of the spine, but if not you can always flip to the copyright page in the front of the book.
Build a list of trusted names
It’s important to teach kids that books come from people, which is why I make a habit of naming authors and illustrators and reading any front/back matter about them. I extend that same practice to the nonfiction we read. My son's space obsession has led us to David A. Aguilar (who writes about space for National Geographic Kids) and Seymour Simon (who writes about everything for the Smithsonian). On those rare days we move past space to animals, we love Katherine Roy, especially Neighborhood Sharks. I’m itching for the day we make it one more stack over and find David Macaulay. When we're delving into a new topic, my son and I look to see what those authors or their publishers have produced about it.
Don’t forget to check out what your favorite authors are doing. Dave Eggers, for example, writes great kids’ nonfiction.
Use interlibrary loan
You might dimly recall filling out tiny slips of paper to request books that were unlikely to arrive before your (admittedly eleventh-hour) term paper was due.
If you haven’t used interlibrary loan since your school days, you are in for a treat. Many library systems make it easy to request books via an online account. The books are then delivered to your local branch and stored with your name on them so you can get in and out in a five minutes--a great feature if your child is tantruming because he's already read all of the Olivia books on offer or because he has to pee but is afraid of the hand dryer in the library bathroom. Most libraries also network with other libraries in their state, so it's easy to request books from hundreds of miles away.
Remember that any book is a children’s book if your child reads it
My son’s current favorite nonfiction titles are Nirmala Natawaj’s The Planets and George Legendre and Stefano Grazini’s Pasta by Design. Neither is a “children’s” book, but it’s easy to see why kids love them. One is a gorgeous photographic tour of our solar system, and the other is an alphabetized encyclopedia of plain pasta. Next time you go to the library, try browsing the grown-up stacks, too.
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