Record-setting Jeopardy winner James Holzhauer read children’s books as part of his strategy to gain knowledge, but you don’t need to be a Jeopardy dynamo to appreciate nonfiction picture books for children.
1. They make exploring new subjects easy.
Ready for a new nonfiction novel, but not sure which topic you want to tackle? Read a few nonfiction picture books first. When you find a book on an intriguing topic, check for a bibliography—most nonfiction picture books have them these days—and start your adult reading with one of those vetted titles.
2. They eliminate non-essential details.
Check out all the books I read when I was researching my forthcoming book, The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem. And I’m not alone. Children’s nonfiction authors regularly read through thousands of pages of research materials, but the books we write rarely use more than 2000 words. We take huge amounts of information, encapsulate the most important elements into as few words as possible, then turn them a story that even the most reluctant reader will find appealing. When we do our job right, the resulting book is just as interesting to adults as it is to kids.
3. The illustrations are incredible.
The quality of the artwork in today’s books for young people is astounding, and nonfiction books are no exception. Just look at Kadir Nelson’s museum-worthy masterpieces in The Undefeated, Eric Rohmann’s finely detailed oil paintings in Honey Bee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera, Thao Lam’s paper cuts and collage in her wordless, semi-autobiographical book The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story, or Sophie Blackall’s gorgeous water colors in Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear. Illustrators do painstaking research to get the images in their nonfiction books right—and readers of every age reap the benefits.
4. The back matter.
“Back matter,” found after the main text of the story, provides additional information on the book’s subject, and it’s a goldmine of interesting information. The unsavory aspects of a complicated story are likely to be addressed in the back matter. There might be a detailed timeline, suggested reading list, or, as I mentioned before, a bibliography. Sometimes it includes a more straightforward retelling of events covered in the story, or it may bring a historical subject up to date. The Great Stink covers events that happened before 1900, but the back matter is all about cholera and water pollution today.
5. They cover a wide variety of topics.
If you’re worried that books for children won’t offer the diverse range of subject matter adult readers require, take a look at Librarian Betsy Bird’s 2019 list of recommended nonfiction picture books. These books cover the Stonewall uprising, how plants use color to communicate, the birth of the ramen noodle, the first moon landing, the search for life on other planets, and the lives of Japanese-American illustrator Gyo Fujikawa, inventor Rube Goldberg, Nobel Prize winner Mario Molina, and surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, to name a few.
Ready to explore the amazing world of nonfiction picture books? Consider starting here:
- 2021 Children’s Book Council Best STEM Books (Here’s the 2020 list.)
- Librarian Betsy Bird’s recommended Nonfiction Picture Books of 2020 (Here’s her 2019 list.)
- Robert F. Sibert Medal and Honor Books
- New York Public Library’s 2020 Best Nonfiction Picture Books
- School Library Journal’s Best Nonfiction Books of 2020
- Kirkus’ Best Picture Book Biographies of 2020
Note: some of these lists include books for older children, but you’ll find plenty of picture books to choose from—and you might like the books for older kids, too.