Inspiring works of non-fiction for children
October 7, 2009 10:38 AM   Subscribe

I am looking for outstanding non-fiction books for younger children. Maybe you remember a volume that really sparked your interest in a topic? Is there an Art (etc) '101' book you enjoy paging through with your kid?

I am trying to avoid the jumbled stock photography and pandering, sometimes inaccurate text that seems to pervade the genre. There must be some inspirational stuff out there, but sorting through the chaff is difficult...

I am particularly eager to find good books on art and music with enough illustrations to be engaging for a preschooler, but I am also looking to build a solid library for my daughter and want to track down the best intro-to-X or Children's X or Illustrated X books out there. I want something you'd want to read over and over and which would send you to the library for more on the topic, not something you'd bin after the book report.

Tips on books not necessarily for children but which would work well for same welcomed, too.

(I read the Childcraft encyclopedia thread with interest, and am interested in encyclopedia commentary as well)
posted by kmennie to Education (25 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I'm generally really pleased with books from Dorling-Kindersley and Usborne. Lots of photos, informative text that is age-appropriate, a huge variety of subject matter, and both companies have offerings from board books for babies on up.
posted by padraigin at 10:54 AM on October 7, 2009

I have always loved the incredible cross sections books; they're fascinating and full of detail, plus plenty of text.
posted by Think_Long at 10:55 AM on October 7, 2009

It's not about art or music, but check out Born with a Bang: The Universe Tells Our Cosmic Story. It's amazing.

The Amazon "also bought" suggestions brings up lots of interesting non-fiction nature books from there.
posted by diogenes at 10:57 AM on October 7, 2009

The Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness series of monographs are fantastic. Monet, Goya, etc.
posted by fire&wings at 10:58 AM on October 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: [Please don't limit to art and music -- all topics welcome!]
posted by kmennie at 11:05 AM on October 7, 2009

William Wegman has a whole series of childrens books, most of which incorporate the dog images, from his other career as a famous Artist. Nice books.
posted by R. Mutt at 11:08 AM on October 7, 2009

I got the Readers' Digest North American Wildlife guide when I was about seven or eight and loved it. It's a hefty book and not specifically aimed at kids, but it's pretty digestible (heh) nonetheless. A younger child can look at the pictures, an older child can go out and identify the stuff growing in her backyard.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:16 AM on October 7, 2009

The incredible cross-sections book reminded me of David Macaulay -- absolutely fascinating.

When I was little, I looooved my Charlie Brown 'Cyclopedia. So much so that I not only learned where babies came from on my own, but (at age 5ish) explained it to my dumbstruck mother while riding in the car. I started by reading it because I knew who Snoopy was, but then I moved on to the other pictures and finally the words.

Also on the sex-ed tip: Where Did I Come From (and its sequels, for later). I always thought Mayle's later work (all of the provence stuff, etc.) was a rather funny juxtaposition :)
posted by Madamina at 11:21 AM on October 7, 2009

Workman publishing does some good stuff. (For young kids, Gallop! and Waddle! are fun.)
posted by gudrun at 11:25 AM on October 7, 2009

The Number Devil is fantastic. I mean, it's a small masterpiece. My 6yo daughter devoured it and leapt at the chance to join a math circle with working mathematicians. She's now comfortable chatting about polyhedra, tesselations, the Fibonacci series and Pascal's triangle.

Several of the other children in the group were also there as a result of having read The Number Devil.
posted by rdc at 11:30 AM on October 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

I credit the American Heritage Junior Library with my love for history and art. Although some of the interpretations may seem dated and American Exceptionalist, they provide a good grounding in the events or subjects and are profusely illustrated with period artwork and/or photographs.
posted by marxchivist at 11:42 AM on October 7, 2009

The Way Things Work, by David Macaulay. I spent so much time paging through this book when I was a kid that my copy is pretty much destroyed. Also anything else he did, Cathedral, City, etc... I also really liked Eyewitness books, and the related Visual Dictionary series (to the point where, as an adult, I still look for those DK Travel Guides first when I'm buying a travel book about a place). My friends at school liked the Eyewitness books so much that they were a valued trading commodity; when someone had a birthday coming up, everyone else would be like "let's hope he gets one that no one has yet so it can be added to the trading pool," like Transformers.

Another class of non-fiction books I reread obsessively as a child were any sort of handbook of skills, particularly outdoor survival skills. Camping Top Secrets, How to Build Treehouses, Boy Scouts Handbook, etc. In a similar vein, I loved The Victory Garden Kids' Book. I had a whole bunch of books like this that I can't think of the titles now, but I can remember the tips: how to build a solar water distillation system, how to cook food without being able to start a fire, etc.

I also went through a phase where I was obsessed with getting books about war: Jane's Guide to Antisubmarine Warfare and that sort of thing. This kind of freaked my hippie parents out ("uuuhhhhh learning, good, war, bad, what to do?" Use them as special bribes.) but maybe your daughter will be less likely to get into this. Even though there's a lot of cultural bias that says things like the Boy Scout Handbook are for boys (cf the recent bestseller "The Dangerous Book for Boys") I was originally given the Handbook by my mother, who had stolen hers from her older brothers and was completely obsessed with it as a child.

Now that I think about it, I still like these types of books now, I'm just not as hung up on there being tons of pictures. I was recently given a book about building snow shelters as a gift, I bought a book about building drip irrigation systems last spring, and I still like paging through the Encyclopedia of Country Living, despite the fact that I live in Brooklyn.
posted by jeb at 11:42 AM on October 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

How do you define non-fiction? I LOVED D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths as a kid. It was really educational on the Greek mythology side (and though it's made for kids, it doesn't gloss over the sketchy parts of myths like Disney does), and at the end it tells you about the relationships between the Greek and Roman Gods. This got me to start asking about why they had the same names as planets, and got me looking at constellations, which led to all kinds of interest in astronomy books.
posted by olinerd at 11:53 AM on October 7, 2009

The older (1967?) and originally-published-in-German book "The Way Things Work" (see is also excellent. Every page or two-page spread illustrates how somehtign works: Bessemer converter, internal combusiton engine, turbine, hydroelectric generator, etc., etc. As a kid I endlessly paged through my brother's copy and finally, FINALLY got my own just last month. (It still rules.)

And those David Macaulay books like "Castle" and "Cathedral" hold their appeal year after year.

The book "Moving Heavy Things" ( and all the others by Jan Adkins are much in the vein of Macaulay but focus on a smaller set of objects & principles (knots, sails, etc.). Yay, Jan Adkins!
posted by wenestvedt at 12:03 PM on October 7, 2009

i thought i was going to be original, but it looks like i wasn't the only young mind fascinated with the way things work. i was recently at my father's house and he still has the same copy of the book sitting on the bookshelf and i, like a 7 year old, sat cross legged on the floor and flipped through well worn pages.

be careful though - this book was the direct inspiration for my brother and i to take apart anything with screws on the bottom.
posted by nadawi at 12:50 PM on October 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding the Dorling Kindersley "Eyewitness" books. There are something like 120 now, on all different subjects - art, history, science, music, world religions, sports... I've been collecting them for my daughter since before she was born and we've barely scratched the surface. At six, she's just starting to read them ("Spy" is a special favorite).

That said, many of the art/artist titles were not reprinted in the latest edition, so you will want to check your library or used bookstore for those.
posted by Flannery Culp at 1:38 PM on October 7, 2009

The Way the Universe Works was an amazing book for me as a child and I still have it sitting in my bookshelf! Awesome photographs and diagrams and really good explanations. The website says it's for age 8+.
The whole Magic Schoolbus series is great, it has lots of really above-average explanations and diagrams and your favourite characters from TV as well! I particularly liked the one about electricity to get you started.

Hana's Suitcase is a great book about some kids in Japan who with the help of a mentor uncovered the story of a girl who lived and died during the holocaust.

If I remember anything else I'll let you know! These things always escape my mind when I need them...
posted by alon at 1:49 PM on October 7, 2009

One year for Christmas, I was given The Random House Book of 1001 Questions and Answers. I read that book cover-to-cover dozens of times. It was all the most interesting parts of science and culture boiled down into digestible, informative bits, like an encyclopedia designed for a kid with a short attention span (which is exactly what I was).

It's worth noting that I was not big into voluntary reading at the time (not counting Garfield, Calvin & Hobbes, and Nintendo Power), but that book really managed to grab my interest, and helped inspire a life-long love of learning.
posted by dephlogisticated at 2:19 PM on October 7, 2009

Thirding the Eyewitness books. I just bought one last week... and I don't even have kids.
posted by you're a kitty! at 2:42 PM on October 7, 2009

Hands down, bar none, the absolute and total king of children's nonfiction is: The LIFE Science Library. I make this as an absolute statement without fear of contradiction.
posted by majick at 3:06 PM on October 7, 2009

(Although the LIFE Nature Library comes in a close second. We got both of them together on eBay.)
posted by majick at 3:07 PM on October 7, 2009

Fine, fine, I'll explain myself: It's the exact opposite of the stock photo / blurby sidebar / fluffy kiddie nonfiction that pervades the market today. It treats the reader as though she has an intellect and a willingness to learn. There is not one whit of "GOLLY WOW! SCIENCE!" to it, which the kids can get in great quantity already from our complete collection of Bill Nye episodes.
posted by majick at 3:09 PM on October 7, 2009

Response by poster: I had not seen the DK Eyewitness stuff before. Now I want to read some of it myself ("Eyewitness Science: Medicine"!), and a lot of it can be had cheap on alibris et al -- yay!
posted by kmennie at 4:36 PM on October 7, 2009

A Little History Of The World by E H Gombrich
posted by srboisvert at 6:23 PM on October 7, 2009

I don't know if this is art-related in the way you mean, but Bill Peet's Autobiography was amazing (and still is, to this day), tons of fun illustrations for the kids. At least, it was inspirational and entertaining, but also serious enough with a lesson, for me.
posted by problemcat at 11:38 AM on October 8, 2009

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