Thursday, November 24, 2011

Ten great non-fiction books for children aged 5-12 years

I have written before on this blog about the importance of non-fiction books (see some links at the end of the post). In fact, some young readers find non-fiction more engaging than fiction. There have been some wonderful examples published in the last year. This post is simply a quick review of ten recently published books that younger children will find interesting and enjoyable. I have arranged them roughly in order of difficulty.

'Bilby Secrets' Edel Wignel, illustrated by Mark Jackson

This is a delightful non-fiction picture book that teaches us in narrative form about the life of the wonderful bilby, an Australian marsupial. It traces the events of a typical day for mother and baby, and the perils of native and feral animals as the baby Bilby tries to survive life in the Australian landscape. Edel Wignel's story keeps the reader interested, while Mark Jackson's brightly coloured illustrations add drama and detail to this piece of discovery learning in narrative form. Children aged 2-6 will love this book. It is also a great book for classroom-based units and learning. 

'Simpson and his Donkey' by Mark Greenwood & illustrated by Frané Lessac

Every Australian and English child who grew up in the 1950s to 70s in Australia would know of the story of Simpson and the donkey he used to retrieve wounded men on the WWI battlefields of the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. This was one of the greatest of all defeats for the forces of Britain, France and of course the Australian and New Zealand armed forces (the ANZACs). In the midst of the massacre of thousands of allied troops and the eight month siege of this isolated beachhead, a man and his donkey were responsible for saving many lives, before Simpson was eventually killed on yet another mission.

Mark Greenwood offers a moving story of John Simpson Kirkpatrick and how he and his donkey, Duffy, rescued over 300 men during the campaign at Gallipoli. It traces his life from his home in South Shields in Newcastle (England) and his journey from the Tyne Dock to Turkey. Informed by detailed research, the text includes a brief biography of the man, details of his work at Gallipoli and also the little known story of how one of the many he rescued was actually a childhood friend.

Frané Lessac's illustrations are a wonderful complement to the story and have strength of colour that is not controlled by conventions. There are skies of yellow, orange, aqua, purple and all shades of blue. Her unique style draws your eye deep into each plate; no details can easily be missed.

'Kubla Khan: Emperor of Everything' by Kathleen Krull and illustrated by Robert Byrd

Kubla Khan is not well known and has often been mentioned historically only indirectly or in passing. Who was the man who Coleridge described in his famous poem 'Kubla Kahn'? This is the presumed grandson of Genghis Khan who reputedly built the imperial city of Beijing, and fathered a hundred or more children. History and legend suggest that he ruled over the greatest empire of the time, and that it was more advanced than previous civilisations in science, art and technology. The narrative text is engaging and should hold the interest of young readers, and Robert Byrd beautifully illustrates the book. Readers aged 7-9 years will enjoy this 42 page illustrated book.

'The Legend of Moondyne Joe' by Mark Greenwood & illustrated by Frané Lessac

The motivation for this story was a visit by the author to the Fremantle Prison near Perth Western Australia and the cell that was built especially for a bushranger who was difficult to keep incarcerated. Moondyne Joe was not known for gunfights or holding up stagecoaches in the early days of the colony. It was the convict bushranger's ability to escape each time he was placed behind bars that made him infamous. The early settlers admired him as he roamed the wooded valleys and winding creeks of the Moondyne Hills, wearing a kangaroo-skin cape and possum-skin slippers.

As with many of Greenwood's books he adds a glossary of terms and some notes on the convict era that increase the depth of the reader's experience of the book. The simple story is superbly illustrated by the paintings of Frané Lessac. This is another wonderful book that engages and teaches.

'You Can Draw Anything' by Kim Gamble

Kim Gamble is a well-known illustrator of Australian picture books. In this very accessible book he shows you how to draw just about anything you want to. Most how-to-draw books are either simple and recipe like or far too complex. The book offers principles and guidance for drawing many objects, including varied animals, people (bodies and faces), and landscapes including perspectives. He also offers techniques for shading and colouring. He intersperses the many diagrams and drawings with stories, jokes and examples that make the approach lots of fun, engaging and effective. It is ideal for children aged 7-10 years.

'Amazing Grace: An Adventure at Sea' by Stephanie Owen Reeder

This is a story about the courage of 16-year-old Grace Bussell. The year is 1876, when a steam ship, the 'Georgette', runs aground near Margaret River in Western Australia. On shore an ordinary 16 year old girl sees the unfolding drama and heads off on horseback with the family servant Sam Isaacs to try to help the stranded passengers. Grace and Sam head into the water with their horses and rescue many people. Using eyewitness accounts and other historical documents as well as some slight embellishment to fill in details to sustain the narrative, Stephanie Reeder brings this true story to life.  This wonderful story is an excellent follow on from Stephanie Reeder's previous book, 'Lost! A True Tale From the Bush'. This previous story was also a true story. It told the story of 3 children who became lost on their way home in 1864 and spent eight days alone. It was shortlisted in the 2010 CBCA children's literature awards.  
'The Boy from Bowral' by Robert Ingpen

Robert Ingpen is known primarily as an illustrator but he is also a fine writer with 13 works of fiction and over 20 non-fiction. His most recent book as writer and illustrator is 'The Boy from Bowral' which tells the biographical story of Australian cricketer Sir Donald Bradman who is the greatest cricketer of all time. Bradman is seen as a legend in any cricket playing nation and Ingpen provides a lucidly written and historically accurate picture of Bradman's early life in Bowral, his rise to prominence as a cricketer, and his sporting career. The images are drawings based primarily on existing photographs, so the keen cricket fan (like me) will feel that they recognise some of them. The cover (which wraps around to the back) is a wonderful sequence of images that appear like a series of video frames that capture the classic Bradman cover drive. I loved this book and any cricket following child or adult will also enjoy it.

'Into the Unknown' by Stewart Ross and illustrated by Stephen Biesty

This wonderful hard cover book from tells the story of 14 famous journeys throughout history, including 'Pytheas the Greek Sails to the Arctic Circle in 340BC', 'Admiral Zheng He Crosses the Indian Ocean in 1405-07', 'Neil Armstrong & Buzz Aldrin Land on the Moon in 1969', 'Marco Polo Rides the Silk Road to China in 1271-74' and many more.

Each story has multiple drawings, maps and a giant fold out cross-section. Boys will read and look through this book for hours. You will also enjoy reading this exciting book to boys. There are many other 'cross-section' books by Stephen Biesty and others (here), including 'Egypt in Cross Section', 'Castles' and 'Rome'.

'Movie Maker' by Tim Grabham, Suridh Hassan, Dave Reeve and Clare Richards

'Movie Maker' is another wonderful resource from Walker Books designed for primary school aged children (7-12 years). It is a kit that contains ideas for making movies, and a handbook that shows you how armed simply with a video camera, you can make movies. The handbook talks about techniques like storyboarding, production, equipment, sound and lighting, design, special effects, how to vary camera shots and so on. It also includes some very cute aids such as a binocular mask, an adjustable frame, sample story boards, character props (e.g. glasses, moustache) and even authentic theatre tickets. All it doesn't include is the popcorn.

'The Book of Potentially Catastrophic Science: 50 Experiments for Daring Young Scientists' by Sean Connolly

I wanted this book as soon as I saw it.  Well, as soon as I saw the title!  The book is all about igniting interest in science. Sean Connolly achieves this with lively, hands-on activities that suggest excitement and "danger". Simple experiments that pop, ooze, surprise and teach will delight boys and girls in upper primary. He also leads the reader through the history of science, and uses simple experiments to demonstrate key scientific principles.

The reader can rediscover the wheel and axle with the ancient Sumerians, or perform an astounding experiment demonstrating the theory of angular momentum. Children can build a simple telescope like Galileo's and find the four moons he discovered orbiting Jupiter.  They can experiment safely with electricity and avoid the more risky approach of Ben Franklin with his Lightning experiment. They will also learn how to re-create the Hadron Collider in a microwave with marshmallows, calculator, and a ruler to demonstrate the speed of light. Or they might simply crush a can using Stephenson's steam can experiment. This is a wonderful book for children aged 9-12 years.

Related Posts

'Meet the Author: Mark Greenwood & Frané Lessac' HERE
'Author & Illustrator Focus: Robert Ingpen HERE
'Getting Boys into Books Through Non-Fiction' HERE
'Making Reading Exciting for Boys' HERE


Jackie said...

Great list. I'm probably guilty of reading too much fiction with my daughter.
I also recently received a copy of Nancy Bentley- The First Australian Female Sailor (New Frontier Publishing).
I was amazed by how captivated my two year old was by this story. I'm sure other young girls would enjoy it too.

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Jackie, Thanks for your comment and the extra book suggestion. Love your blog, I just tweeted your Advent Calendar idea. Trevor

Aidinas said...

Hello Trevor! I'm not quite sure how I stumbled across your page, but I am QUITE happy I did! I've been reading your posts for the past hour or so and do believe I have found the exact person I'm looking for. An expert in the field of young children's literature! How exciting! (Do you know how difficult it is to find scholarly journals on such a topic?)

I'm a student at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, Georgia (English Creative Writing and Theatre Double Major with a minor in Education) I also have a two year old daughter so I've bookmarked your site! And will share with all my mum friends!

Currently, I am working on a major piece of work (40% of my grade in Perspectives on Lit.) that will question weather any children's literature (recently) is comparable to Baums Wizard of Oz. I'd like to take into consideration the illustrations, the spaced, large words, the fantasy aspect of of it, and the more "experienced" themes or morals associated with Dorathys travels. My argument would be that no author has successfully been able to produce a young children's novel (age 4ish to 7) that captures their attention and uses words and descriptions not including compound sentences or words that don't sound like their definition. (examples) "Extremely" "Amazing" "Adoring" "queer" -These words can be emphasized with enough exaggeration so that the child can infner the meaning. My thesis will in turn conclude with something expressing the unfortunute lack of imagination, patience and concentration our youth have today. Technology based entertainment has truly taken over and I believe the roots may in fact come from the lack of a "mother figure" (Father figure, grandmother, etc) telling stories of far off places without having illustrations on every single page. I believe that children should have the capacity to create their own visions of what descriptions would look like. I have been scouring bookstores and library's trying to find something to argue my point. As I look at the chapter books you listed for young children, I am now eager to go tomorrow and find them, (as my paper is due on Saturday, And I'd hate to be proven wrong)

If you can give me any insight at all, as to if you agree or disagree that Baum (I'm not speaking of the political interpretation of the book, just the children's tale) is in fact in a league of its own, that would be greatly appreciated I would certainly quote you, and give you proper credit. (And a copy of the finished paper, if you like)

I apologize for this long comment, I simply could not find your e-mail link! I'm quite excited at having found you, as I'm very passionate about this paper.



Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Sanidia, so nice to hear from you. We all like positive feedback, so thanks for your generous comments. I agree that the 'Wizard of Oz'is a wonderful book, but I don't feel that it's in a class of its own. There are many wonderful books written for 4-7 year olds (I also think Baum's book has a wider age range than this, maybe 5-12 is more accurate). In relation to fantasy alone I think many people would want to argue for 'Alice in Wonderland', 'The Hobbit', 'Lord of the Rings', 'The Chronicles of Narnia', 'Wind in the Willows', 'The Phantom Tollbooth' and too many others to list in a single comment. Yes, it's a very good book, but there are many other wonderful examples of fantasy for this age group. Hope the major piece of work turns out well. Trevor