Thursday, October 28, 2021

Read to Me! (Part 4): Ten Great Non-fiction Books to Read Aloud

I'm a passionate believer in reading aloud to children. It's a regular part of every day for us in Year 6 and I'm more and more convinced that this routine joy for us all is the key to building readers for life, in terms of confidence, knowledge, skills, and of course, pleasure.

Those who read aloud to their classes will undoubtedly read primarily fiction - novels, short stories, poems. Children enjoy listening and talking about these very much and I have also been struck by how they seem to enjoy writing stories for themselves above all other kinds of text. In fact, it was this 'noticing' that led me to explore the idea of reading more non-fiction to my class this year: would they enjoy it as much as getting into a good novel? Would their enjoyment of writing information texts for pleasure be enhanced too? Would the Book Chat be any different to that when discussing fiction or poetry? 

I have in the past always read non-fiction books to my classes  but I have never read whole books  of this kind to the children - why, I really don't know. There is so much high quality non-fiction out there at the moment that it seems silly not to do so! So this half term, I have experimented with reading aloud much more regularly from the same non-fiction book, purely for pleasure, just like a class novel. It hasn't been non-fiction every day; in fact, I have asked the class from time to time to vote if they would like to hear from our fiction or non-fiction read. It varies, as with all our reading habits.

Whilst I am still researching the effect of the practice - and I aim to publish this on the Open University Reading For Pleasure website later this academic year - I hope the following list of books that read aloud extremely well will be of use to anyone looking to explore the richness of non-fiction-reading-for-pleasure for themselves. I would love to hear of how your class responds! 


The Ten Books

1. Dr Nick Crumpton and Gavin Scott: Everything you know about Dinosaurs is wrong

A marvellously 'dippable' book, each double page spread debunks a myth that children (and many adults, including myself) may have previously believed to be true: Dinosaurs could roar: WRONG! Dinosaurs were all big: WRONG! Dinosaurs are all extinct: WRONG! Excited book chat is an understatement for this one! 

2. Alexis Frederick-Frost : Maker Comics: Grow a Garden!

I discovered this lovely series whilst looking for graphic novels for my class to read. We actually read this one with the children reading aloud each character's part to each other, rather like a play. So many children wanted to join in. The fun, quirky narrative (genius naked mole-rat characters anyone?!) helps to soften the very challenging information about the science of plant growth forming the main intent of the text. Others in the series include Baking and Fixing Cars...but these are just as challenging so be aware! 

3. Helaine Becker and Dow Phumiruk: Counting on Katherine

The Hidden Figures of the Space Race are at last getting their justified recognition and this book, winner of the Information category of the UKLA award in 2020 is a beautifully illustrated and super-clear non-fiction narrative of Katherine's life. The illustrations repay very close attention - there's lots of 'hidden' mathematical references - so once it has been read aloud, I'm sure many children will want to go on to explore the book much more closely. 

4. Kwame Alexander and Kadir Nelson: The Undefeated

This extraordinary book was the winner of the Information Book category of the UKLA prize last year. It is an inspiring and intensely thought-provoking text, equally challenging in its words and in its pictures, and has been the starting point of some of the deepest and most sensitive and questioning discussion I have ever experienced with my Year 6s. The poet reads the book here:, a clip I will always show every one of my classes. 

5. Susan Martineau and Vicky Barker: Real Life Mysteries

A bit like a modern-day Mysteries of the Unknown (see No. 6 below), this book riffs on many children's fascination with the esoteric: the Bermuda Triangle, UFOs, spontaneous combustion...and more. The tales are so bizarre that any reading is always accompanied by exclamations of 'No way!'. The structure of the book is perfect with two double-page spreads for each 'mystery': one, an introduction to the mystery itself and its attendant tales, and the second an exploration of two sides arguing whether each phenomenon is fact or fiction. A great book to pick up again and again, it won the Blue Peter Award for Best Book With Facts. 

6. Carey Miller: Monsters

My very first full blog was about the effect that the Usborne classic 'Ghosts' had on me as a boy. There is something universally fascinating and inspiring about this series, thankfully re-released by Usborne. Now all three are back in print and this, the third in the series, focuses on the monstrous, from the Loch Ness Monster and T-Rex to Medusa and the Yeti. The illustrations are pretty horrific and mostly gory, so of course this automatically makes it a winner with most older children! 

7. Ned Hartley and Binny Talib: The Big Book of Dead Things

What a title! This information book that covers everything from mummies to dinosaurs presents one of the most fascinating concepts to children: death. In no way morbid, it offers a lively and pacy exploration of all things dead and extinct by way of a fox family exploring a museum. There are overtones of graphic novel style here that definitely rewards closer viewing, but the text is engaging on a whole class level and the book is exactly what the title says - BIG! - which makes viewing the pictures easy and pleasurable. 

8. Michael Hearst and Jelmer Noordeman: Unusual Creatures

This book that was sitting in my class bookshelves was one that was requested by one of my class to be read aloud to everyone: their amazement at the peculiarities of the beasts described between the covers simply had to be shared. Each page describes a different 'unusual creature' from around the world and the information is couched in quirky structural and linguistic choices: there's True or False quizzes (which engaged everyone!), but also a True or True quiz, for example! I am fairly hardy but the hagfish page, read just after lunch, certainly gave my stomach a bit of a turn. Maybe best read at a different time of day...

9.Christine Dorion and Gosia Herba: Invented by Animals

Like Unusual Creatures, this book has fascinated the children I have taught. An original concept for a book on animals, it explores the concept of biomimicry, specifically how humans are looking to animals and their incredible construction, disguise and communication methods (amongst many other things!) to inspire our own technologies. The page about the mimic octopus led to requests to actually see the creature via a video clip and I particularly love how this book acts as a vehicle for natural further exploration and developed learning. 

10. Markus Motum: Curiosity

The reader-aloud becomes the voice of the Mars Rover, Curiosity, in this complex but beautifully clear picture book aimed at KS2. Throughout, there is a driving sense of wonder and potential making this is the perfect book to inspire the next generation of space explorers, scientists and programmers. 


With thanks to Nosy Crow, bsmall publishing and Anna Howarth of Usborne books for their help in preparing this blog. 

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