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Nonfiction can rock young readers' world

Published August 30, 2013 2:34 pm

Selection • Newer titles in the genre provide plenty of reasons for kids to start turning pages.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The late children's author Barbara "Bea" Williams once gave me advice I've never forgotten: If you have young boys in your life who don't like to read, give them nonfiction. You know. Almanacs. Guinness Book of World Records. Kid-friendly biographies and histories.

Well-meaning adults sometimes forget that reading fiction isn't the only kind of reading that counts.

Williams (as usual) was right. Even better news is that the quality of nonfiction published today for young readers — girls and boys both — is outstanding. Some newer titles kids might enjoy are listed below.

"The Nazi Hunters" by Neal Bascomb is the fascinating account of the hunt for the notorious Nazi Adolph Eichmann, who was the CEO of Hitler's "Final Solution." Under his direction, 11 million people (including 6 million Jews) were murdered. He was eventually apprehended in Argentina, thanks to a team of dedicated individuals who investigated an initial tip from a steely-nerved teenage girl. Bascomb's research is solid and his prose crackles. As one reviewer noted, "The Nazi Hunters" reads like a thriller. Good for ages 12 and up.

"A Little Book of Sloth" by Lucy Cooke is a completely charming picture book filled with completely charming pictures of baby sloths. Seriously, who knew they were so adorable? The kid-friendly text is light-hearted and informative, with memorable facts like this: "Three-fingered sloths are the only mammal on the planet with extra neck vertebrae and can turn their heads up to 270 degrees." Just like Linda Blair in "The Exorcist"! Only cuter! Good for ages 5 and up.

"Bone Collection: Animals" by Rob Scott Colson gives a bird's-eye view of what dozens of animals from frogs to snakes to elephants to whales look like when they're undressed. And there is plenty of basic information about a variety of species, too. Did you know that the elephant's trunk consists of its nose and upper lip? Which makes it very sensitive? The design of this book is appealing and user-friendly. Good for ages 8 and up.

'Sports Illustrated Kids Stats! (The Greatest Numbers in Sports)" throws numbers out there and then explains what they stand for: "10" (Nadia Comaneci's score on the uneven parallel bars—the first 10 ever given for an Olympic gymnastic performance), "406" (the batting average for Bosox leftfielder Ted Williams in 1941), "109,901" (the seating capacity of the University of Michigan's football stadium). Great photographs make this book especially attractive. Good for ages 5 and up.

There are a number of excellent books for young readers that document the wartime internment of Japanese-American citizens, including "The Children of Topaz" by local author Michael O. Tunnell. "Imprisoned: the Betrayal of Japanese Americans During War II" by Martin W. Sandler is a new addition to this important body of literature. The book provides previously unpublished information about the internment experience and the internees who volunteered to fight for the United States in spite of the injustice to them and their families. "Imprisoned" also examines the difficult path to healing after the war's end. The photographs in this book — especially of young children — both stun and haunt. Good for ages 10 and up.

"The Tapir Scientist: Saving South America's Largest Mammal," with text by Sy Montgomery and photographs by Nic Bishop, follows the efforts of Brazilian scientist Pati Medici to study (and ultimately save) the elusive tapir. The reason for Medici's interest? Extinction of the seed-spreading lowland tapir would ultimately lead to the disappearance of Pantanal, which some people have called the Everglades on steroids. This is a text-heavy picture book, and it's not particularly easy reading. But "The Tapir Scientist" is a good choice for the right reader with an interest in wildlife and conservation. For ages 10 and up.

Like "The Tapir Scientist," "Eruption!" is part of the "Scientists in the Field" series published by Houghton Mifflin. The book gives an overview of some the Earth's active volcanoes and the scientists who study them in an effort to predict and avert disasters like the one that killed 23,000 people in Colombia in 1985. "Eruption!" does a good job of answering questions about volcanoes, including how people observe the activity of volcanoes they can't actually see. For ages 10 and up.

"Papa's Mechanical Fish" by Candace Fleming is a likable picture book that reimagines the process used by Lodner Phillips to invent one of the first modern submarines. More fiction than nonfiction, "Papa's Mechanical Fish" nonetheless introduces young children to the creative process in action. For ages 4-8.

While the title's clever wordplay may be slightly off-putting to some adults, the latest installment in "The Hazardous Tales" series (http://www.hazardoushistory.com) by talented local illustrator Nathan Hale provides a useful look at a controversial chapter in the history America's westward expansion. Using the format of a graphic novel, "Donner Dinner Party" tracks the tale of the Donner party's ill-fated 1846 emigration from its beginning in Illinois to its tragic end in the mountains of California. Good for ages 8 and up.

Of course there are plenty of older nonfiction favorites from which to choose. "How Big Is It?" by Ben Hillman gives readers a sense of scale by superimposing images such as a giant squid and a two-story house. "The Notorious Benedict Arnold" by Steve Sheinkin is a richly realized biography of the traitor who was once one of America's greatest war heroes. Finally, "How They Croaked" by Georgia Bragg — which narrates the circumstances surrounding the deaths of famous historical figures (Albert Einstein, Cleopatra, Edgar Allan Poe, Pocahontas) — is absurdly entertaining and educational.

For more awesome suggestions, talk to your local children's librarian or bookseller!