Tag Archives: non fiction picture books
picture books to learn with
We all can learn so so much from picture books (I know I do!). So here’s a list of 18 standout non-fiction picture books that illuminate historical figures, events, science, nature, culture, math, art, and more! I hope you get to check out some of these because all of them will speak of our world and inspire kids (and you) to know more, to care more, to experience more.
Nina: A Story of Nina Simone words by Traci N. Todd pictures by Christian Robinson (2021). This treasure of a book pops and sings and draws you in. “Nina was done with being polite. As far as she could tell, politeness had gotten her people nothing.”
One Sun and Countless Stars by Hena Khan, illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini (2022) is part of a wonderful series, and in this newest installment, Mehrdokht Amini’s illustrations struck me even more—particularly the ones whose compositions zoom in so the rich colors and textures come alive.
Mambo Mucho Mambo: The Dance That Crossed Color Lines by Dean Robbins, illustrated by Eric Velasquez (2021) is a wonderful account that takes you back in time and makes you want to dance.
Where the Wee Ones Go by Karen Jameson, illustrated by Zosienka (2022) is soothing and illuminating (and just the right amount of sad and hopeful) about the “vulnerable animal babies” the author and illustrator capture in this bedtime book.
The People Remember by Ibi Zoboi and Loveis Wise (2021) is an extraordinary illustrated poem that’s also an expansive history of the African diaspora while illuminating the principles of Kwanzaa. It’s about the past, but also about the present and future and the myriad ways Black Americans have shaped the world.
Look, Grandma! Ni, Elisi! by Art Coulson, illustrated by Madelyn Goodnight (2021). A story that fabulously incorporates interactive math as Bo searches for just the right container to display his marbles at his family’s booth at Cherokee National Holiday. You can learn some Cherokee words in the back as well!
Circle Under Berry by Carter Higgins (2021) is an imaginative, spatial exploration of shapes, of prepositions, of how we see, what we see, and the relationships of things. And it is deeply smart and satisfying.
Art of Protest: Creating, Discovering, and Activating Art for Your Revolution by De Nichols, illustrated by Diana Dagadita, Oliva Twist, Molly Mendoza, Diana Ejaita (2021). A fabulous protest primer, art workshop, history all in one. “…my hope is that this book will encourage and equip you to use art as a language and instrument that can help you champion your chosen cause,” De Nichols.
A Shape Shifting Adventure in Hawai’i written by Daniel Frates, illustrated by Jamie Meckel Tablason (2021) is the tale of a line who takes many exciting shapes while traveling around their Hawai’i home.
Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Gold Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Natasha Donovan. (2021). A story of an innovating woman in engineering and the way both a love of math and her Cherokee values shaped her journey and contributions.
The 1619 Project: Born on the Water by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson, illustrated by Nikkolas Smith (2021) starts with a genealogical school assignment that leads to an honoring history of the main character’s African ancestors. It celebrates African cultures and peoples, unflinchingly describes being stolen and enslaved, and praises Black resistance, joy, and pride.
Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford and Floyd Cooper (2021) speaks the unspeakable and doesn’t turn away from the truth of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in a truly incredible book.
Hear My Voice: The Testimonials of Children Detained at the Southern Border of the United States complied by Warren Binford for Project Amplify. A bilingual picture book that’s harrowing and heartbreaking: the true stories of children at Border Patrol facilities— in their own words, powerfully illustrated by different Latinx artists.
Pura’s Cuentos: How Pure Belpré Reshaped Libraries with Her Stories written by Annette Bay Pimentel, illustrated by Magaly Morales (2021) is an ode to this legendary children’s librarian (and first Latina librarian in NYC) from Puerto Rico who enchanted children with her stories of home told in Harlem.
Stitch by Stitch: Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly Sews her Way to Freedom by Connie Schofield-Morrison, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon (2021) is a fascinating true story of a remarkable woman that has stunning artwork that builds along with the biography, layer by layer, stitch by stitch.
Moth and Butterfly Ta-Da written by Dev Petty, illustrated by Ana Aranda (2021) has vibrant, whimsical art capturing two friends who celebrate their differences as they transform—ta-da!
The Angel of Santo Tomas: The Story of Fe Del Mundo by Tammy Lee (2022) is the marvelous biography of a woman who demonstrated intellect, courage, and kindness for her community even in the direst of circumstances.
How to Make a Mountain: from Geologic Formation to Thriving Habitat in Just 9 Simple Steps and Only 100 Million Years! by Amy Huntington, illustrated by Nancy Lemon (2022) is the science of mountain formation in an inventive, DIY package.
four 2020 picture books on raising your voice + giveaway for educators
These four non-fiction picture books, all published this year, showcase incredible people in history—and some young people today—who raised their voices to create change.
Shirley Chisholm is a Verb! written by Veronica Chambers, illustrated by Rachelle Baker (2020).
This picture book is a tribute to Shirley Chisholm and her verbs, her doing, her work and guts and courage. And the way she raised her voice as part of that. In Barbados, “…her teachers taught Shirley how to SPEAK up, and they helped her understand the power of words.” In Brooklyn, she became a teacher herself.
She helped people. Stood up for people. She was part of organizing Head Start. She ran for State Assembly and won. She ran for Congress and won. In 1968, she was the first Black woman elected to Congress!
She took action upon action. She spoke up and then spoke up again. She ran for President! In doing so, Chisholm inspired so many people and paved the way for so many others.
Rachelle Baker’s bold artwork in this biography portrays the spirit of the time as well as Chisholm’s dynamism.
Collection copyright © 2020 by Lindsay H. Metcalf, Keila V. Dawson, and Jeanette Bradley. Illustrations copyright © 2020 by Jeanette Bradley. Used with permission by Charlesbridge Publishing, Inc. All work used by permission of the individual authors, who control all rights. All poems copyright © 2020 by the individual authors. “Water Protector” © Joseph Bruchac.
No Voice Too Small: Fourteen Young Americans Making History edited by Lindsay H. Metcalf, Keila V. Dawson, and Jeanette Bradley, illustrated by Jeanette Bradley (2020).
This picture book is a treasure of inspiration, of poems and illustrations by kidlit creators, each featuring a young person creating change.
Some of these kids may be familiar to you, some of them may not, but every spread showcases one kid, their brief bio, a call to action, and a poem in their honor by acclaimed writers like Hena Khan, Traci Sorell, Carole Boston Weatherford, Andrea J. Loney, and Nikki Grimes.
A variety of amazing young people for readers to admire and take a cue from, 14 different journeys and issues of activism that matter to them, that matter to us all.
The Power of her Pen: The Story of Groundbreaking Journalist Ethel L. Payne by Lesa Cline-Ransom and John Parra (2020).
This picture book captures the life of writer, fighter, and question-asker Ethel L. Payne who grew up in Chicago and “always had an ear for stories.”
Payne also had a lot of courage and persistence—when her school newspaper wouldn’t let a Black student write for it, when she worked toward social change in her neighborhood, when she set her sights on traveling the world as a journalist.
All that courage and persistence landed Payne in the press room of the White House asking important questions as “First Lady of the Black Press.” She documented history—and she was part of it—pushing for civil rights, for answers, and for change.
This non-fiction account is complemented by John Parra’s unmistakable illustrations full of color, texture, and symbols.
Lift as You Climb: The Story of Ella Baker by Patricia Hruby Powell and R. Gregory Christie (2020).
This picture book profiles Ella Baker, who took it to heart when her mother told her: “Lift as you climb.”
As a child, Ella Baker looked after neighbor kids and worked on the farm where her grandparents had been enslaved. She worked hard in school at her studies and as a waitress to pay for those studies. She moved to New York City where she worked hard for the NAACP, for the rights of Black Americans.
She worked for voting rights, always listening to people, always lifting her voice for justice, and always lifting as she climbed.
R. Gregory Christie’s art is extraordinary in this book, as always: technicolor backgrounds, captivating compositions, and portraits that pop off the page.
Thanks to Penguin Young Readers and Charlesbridge, I’m giving away two picture books—if you’re a a teacher or librarian, enter below to win a copy of SHIRLEY CHISHOLM IS A VERB and NO VOICE TOO SMALL below! (US only.)
20 terrific and true picture books
I learn so much from reading non-fiction picture books, and of course I’m sure kids do too! They give insight into historical figures and events, into the way people have solved problems and overcome incredible odds to follow a dream or to fight for justice, into the way dreamers and doers are formed.
With a new school year having started, I couldn’t help but think about a list of some recent favorites— standouts and truly terrific true stories. Here goes!
Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe.
Terrific. Incredible. All the adjectives for this biography of Basquiat. “Art is the street games of little children, in our style and the words that we speak. It is how the messy patchwork of the city creates new meaning for ordinary things.”
Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie.
Congo Square was the only place enslaved (and free) Africans were allowed to meet together in New Orleans in the 1800s, a place where they played music, danced, and shared news. It embodied the hope of freedom and both the succinct, powerful prose and evocative illustrations truly capture that.
I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark written by Debbie Levy, illustrations by Elizabeth Baddeley.
A boldly designed picture book about a bold person whose journey started at the library!
Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton, illustrated by Don Tate.
This is truly a terrific book about an ingenious inventor. “…Because facing challenges, solving problems, and building things are what Lonnie Johnson loves to do. And his ideas just keep on flowing.”
Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh.
Another excellent book, this one documenting the case of Mendez vs. Westminster School District—Sylvia Mendez and her family’s fight to desegregate schools in California. Plus, I’m a big fan of Duncan Tonatiuh’s artwork (stay tuned!).
Crossing Bok Chito: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship & Freedom by Tim Tingle, illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges.
An emotional story with stunning artwork of a Choctaw girl in the 1800s who befriends a little boy who’s a slave and then her family helps his escape to freedom.
Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music by Margarita Engle and Rafael López.
This one is inspired by the true story of Millo Castro Zaldarriaga who dreamed of drumming in Cuba despite gender restrictions and eventually had an all girls band with her sisters and became a famous musician. The dreamiest text and illustrations.
Wangari Masthai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees by Frank Prévot, illustrated by Aurélia Fronty.
A breathtakingly beautiful book that tells of Wangari Maathai’s early life and obstacles in her reforestation work. “…a tree is worth more than its wood.”
Take a Picture of Me, James Van der Zee by Andrea Loney, illustrated by Keith Mallett.
A wonderful exploration of the life of photographer James Van Der Zee and the Harlem Renaissance as well as the way history shapes lives and lives shape history.
The Wolves of Currumpaw by William Grill.
A gripping tale of a legendary wolf and a man who had the capacity for change. A book for budding conservationists.
Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers, art by Shawn Harris.
With the Statue of Liberty as its subject, this one contains facts and laughs and cries and an important message about making the U.S. a welcoming place.
The Book Itch by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie.
Terrific in every way, this story of the National Memorial African Bookstore is also illustrated by a frequent appearer on this list—the talented R. Gregory Christie.
Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko by David Jacobson, Sally Ito, and Michiko Tsuboi, illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri.
This is a poignant biography of a Japanese poet, followed by her poems. A wonderful (and honest) book.
A Time to Act: John F. Kennedy’s Big Speech by Shana Corey and R. Gregory Christie.
This is a fairly comprehensive biography of JFK given the short format and young audience. His childhood, his political rise, and his delay and then eventual speech and action on civil rights. It begins and ends with inspiration for young people, the readers of the book “to speak up, to act, to move the world forward—to make history.”
Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas by Gwendolyn Hooks, illustrated by Colin Bootman.
A story everyone should know about Vivien Thomas, a research assistant who developed a procedure to give children open heart surgery in the 1940s, but who was not credited because he was African American. This book recognizes his struggles and celebrates his contribution, as we should.
Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois, words by Amy Novensky, pictures by Isabelle Arsenault.
A biography of the artist, Louise Bourgeois, whose life was like a cloth lullaby, woven together with the threads of her childhood, her mother, their family tapestry business, Parisian fabrics, memory, and stitching itself.
Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson & Sean Qualls.
The story of a boy born with one leg who biked close to 400 miles when no one believed he could.
Firebird by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers.
A gorgeous book told in second person as a kind of letter of encouragement to a young girl to follow her dreams, filled with fiery, vibrant illustrations.
Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Julie Morstad.
Another special book about dance and finding your passion, pursuing it despite obstacles and through practice, and sharing its joy with others. You can read my interview with the author here.
Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code written by Laurie, Hallmark, illustrated by Katy Wu.
An amazing biography of a woman who from a young age was a creative whiz at figuring out how things work and solving problems. When she grew up, she used her skills to transform computer programming and also coin the term “computer bug.”
You might be interested in another post: Knock Your Socks Off Non-fiction Picture Books about the Natural World.
recent non-fiction picture books that will make you cry (in a good way)
The Case for Loving by Selina Alko, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko.
This book. It’s by an interracial couple about an interracial couple in the past, the Lovings, who went to court to fight for the legality of their marriage and changed everything. Qualls and Alko combined illustration techniques to create a truly special, collaborative book with love at its center.
Growing up Pedro by Matt Tavares.
Even if you’re not a baseball fan, I guarantee this story of two brothers looking out for each other will get to you. Pedro Martinez was once a kid growing up in the Dominican Republic, dreaming of the major leagues. This is the story of how he got there and the relationship with his older brother that sustained him.
Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess, illustrations by Kris Di Giacomo.
This biography of E.E. Cummings is moving because of its beauty—in illustrations and layout design and in poetry. Not only that, but it’s infused with spirit and the idea that you can accomplish your dreams with courage and by staying true to yourself. Yes.
Swan by Laurel Snyder and Julie Morstad.
The perfect combination of joy and melancholy, this tribute to Anna Pavlova’s life (and death) brings sweet, satisfying tears.
Ivan the Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherin Applegate, illustrated by G. Brian Karas.
If you loved the middle grade novel, The One and Only Ivan, then you’ll love this pared down picture book version for younger readers. It gives us the real life story of a gorilla captured from his home and family, living an isolated shopping mall experience, and then finally finding a new home and companions.
Firebird by Misty Copeland, illustrated by Christopher Myers.
This book will make you feel things because of who wrote it (principal ballerina Misty Copeland) and how she did so. And it will make you feel things because of who it’s addressed to: young people with dreams that seem far away to impossible. Plus those vibrant, fiery illustrations that dance on the page.
And finally, one to look forward to!
Finding Winnie by Lindsay Mattick, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (out in October!).
This is the origin behind the origin of Winnie the Pooh, the real life bear named Winnipeg. It’s a beautiful example of a story within a story—a mother telling her son a bedtime tale about their family history: a veterinarian in the army during World War I and the bear cub he bought for twenty dollars at a train station. It’s a masterful book and has so much to say about those moments when one’s “heart makes up one’s mind.”
Thanks to Little, Brown and Company for the image of Finding Winnie.
Any tear-inducing (in a good way) non-fiction picture books to add to the list?