10-year-old (5th Grader) is a reading machine: Help with nonfiction
November 15, 2017 6:06 AM   Subscribe

My 10-year-old is a voracious reader. He's read much of the usual fiction for his age and maybe a year or so older (Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, etc., etc.). He's always been good with reading nonfiction/historical fiction (the I Survived books, those "Who Is" books, the Ken Jennings books), but has favored fiction. Recently, it feels like that balance is more out of whack...

...and it seems like it's largely because we cannot find that much "just right" nonfiction. A lot of history/biography for kids seems too young for him, and then there seems to be a leap to stuff that's aimed at the 13 and up crowd. The other problem is that, frankly, a lot of work for kids seems like bad history (books that don't straightforwardly say that, for example, slavery was the cause of the Civil War).

He's a pretty advanced reader -- but he's still 10. He just read the young person's version of Hidden Figures and enjoyed it. He specifically said he'd love to read about the American West, settlers, the gold rush, etc., but, really, any suggestions that thread the needle would be appreciated. If there were even a textbook-style book that told a broad history of a subject (or even just a good textbook) I think he'd enjoy it.

Also: feel free to tell me I'm being a smidge too overprotective and just make the leap (suggestions welcome there, too).
posted by lieberschnitzel to Education (43 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
He should read everything by Steve Sheinkin.

You could start with Most Dangerous , Undefeated, or The Notorious Benedict Arnold, but really all his stuff is great.

The books are very well written. They are approachable without being dumbed down. And they are engaging. Pick one up and start reading and you won't want to put them down.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 6:16 AM on November 15, 2017

This thread on kid-friendly historical fiction isn't quite what you're asking for, but may be a good source for some books that will fill this need. My recommendations in that thread (from my wife, who is a middle school social studies teacher) are Fever 1793, A Break with Charity, Chains (although this might skew a little older), and Blood on the River.
posted by Betelgeuse at 6:23 AM on November 15, 2017

Your question slightly hints at this, but I wonder if the break between stuff that’s too young for him and stuff that’s too old for him centers around a willingness to engage with controversy, and either present different viewpoints fairly or argue one over another, especially regarding history and biography. This seems highly variable from kid to kid about when that’s okay, cognitively, I.e., that adults don’t agree and there’s sometimes no right answer

I mean if you want to be contrarian (and want him to be contrarian in his history classes) there’s always A Young People’s History of the United States.
posted by supercres at 6:28 AM on November 15, 2017 [7 favorites]

I was a pretty advanced reader at that age also, and I just read whatever I could get my hands on (and my parents, who were not readers, didn't stop me, and it was the 80s so . .didn't know they 'should'?) -- honestly I don't think it's that big a deal if he reads the books for older kids right now.

There were things that I read (like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) that I just enjoyed as *stories* before I got them as *literature* and that is okay. My experience as a young, advanced reader was that I didn't really pick up on the age-inappropriate stuff and I really zeroed in on what I was interested in at the time instead. YMMV, you know your kid. But I'd bet that he would be fine with some books aimed at older kids if he's really blowing through the stuff aimed at his age group.
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:28 AM on November 15, 2017 [10 favorites]

John McPhee is great non-fiction author and I feel written at a level appropriate for such a reader.
posted by nickggully at 6:29 AM on November 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

Mark Twain's "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed" and some of his other nonfiction is pretty good and readable for a young person.
posted by johngoren at 6:37 AM on November 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Have you worked with your school or public librarian? You mention "finding" books for him and being overprotective - I'm not sure why you're even selecting works for him to read at this age. He should be able to select his own material.

My parents took me to the public library, told the librarian I could read/check out anything that wasn't explicitly "adult" and asked them to help me find sections of books if I expressed an interest. It would've killed my love of reading and really hampered my wide-ranging interests if I had to depend on my parents to approve and hand-select every book for me.
posted by Squeak Attack at 6:39 AM on November 15, 2017 [11 favorites]

When I was that I age, I was not into nonfiction--it was schoolwork to me--and I didn't really enjoy it for itself until I was out of college. But if he's interested in nonfiction, here are some places to find nonfiction for his age:

The Silbert Informational Book Medal
Mismatched Pairs: Paired Fiction and Nonfiction for 'Tweens
Association for Library Service to Children's Summer 2017 booklists (check out both grades 3-5 & 6-8; fiction and nonfiction in the lists)
ALSC & Dia's STEAM booklists (scroll below publicity for the lists--again mixed fiction & nonfiction but heavier on the nonfiction)
posted by carrioncomfort at 6:42 AM on November 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

For history, a few good ones to start might be:
1493 for Young People by Charles Mann
A Young People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn
I'd also think about just giving him some David McCullough type books, and see if they are a hit -- he might surprise you.

Graphic novels would also be a good way to go for an almost teen reading at a high level. For example, Jim Ottaivini has done some great science biographies (Feynman, Primates).
posted by veery at 6:44 AM on November 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

I also add that afternoons at the public library are some of my fondest memories of childhood. A few hours to myself, surrounded by books, looking very carefully at each book I was interested in, working on narrowing down to the 5 I was allowed to check out was like church to me, or meditation. I have no idea where my mom even was during most of those visits - reading recent magazines in the periodical room probably. I really appreciate the independence she allowed me to make my own decisions there.

At that age, I read non-fiction in the form of books like Wild Animals of North America, or Horses of the World, and piles and piles of historical fiction.
posted by Squeak Attack at 6:48 AM on November 15, 2017 [6 favorites]

Nonfiction is such a broad category, but I agree that he really should be picking his own books. One of my favorite moments as a public library worker was teaching a voraciously reading ten year old how to use the advanced search function of our library catalog to find more books like the one he'd already found, some of which were in the mysterious "Teen" section. If he brings you something that you're not sure if he's ready for, you can always offer to read it with him so that the two of you can discuss it.

Also, if he read that Juvenile version of Hidden Figures, he's definitely ready for anything on a "Middle School Nonfiction" list. Here's one on Goodreads.
posted by theweasel at 6:52 AM on November 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

I just got called "overprotective" when asking about how to get my 10-year-old to stretch a smidge in his reading?

So, we let him read dang near anything he wants, and we've only vetoed a couple of books (Like: Bill O'Reilly books for kids). We like buying (usually cheap used) books more than the library for a few reasons, but it's mostly because I am not joking about how voracious a reader (and re-reader) he is -- as is his younger brother. It's easier to just keep a ton of books in the house for both of them that they more or less constantly churn through (RIP half.com, and buying $0.99 books in bulk from the same seller.)

Anyway: he likes nonfiction, we'd just like to figure out the best stuff to put in front of him. We're comfortable having discussions with him about difficult subjects.

I saw the Young People's History of the United States -- and wasn't sure on it...is it good...or is it "good for what it is"?

Please keep the suggestions coming. They are much, much appreciated!
posted by lieberschnitzel at 6:57 AM on November 15, 2017

Did you read your own question? You said, "Also: feel free to tell me I'm being a smidge too overprotective and just make the leap (suggestions welcome there, too)."
posted by Squeak Attack at 7:01 AM on November 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

Damn, you're right.
posted by lieberschnitzel at 7:02 AM on November 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Apologies for that: I think I got my hackles up over the "finding" things for him, because I think the dynamic might be the opposite of what you're thinking. He's 10. He would read the same series and sorts of books over and over. My wife and I don't have a problem with that, but he is happy reading stuff outside of his "most preferred" genres, and we're trying to get some nonfiction in his diet.

Anyway: We're not overprotective in the sense of "No, you can't read that," we're really trying to set our own thermostats: "How do we keep his diet of books varied and good, without us pushing him into areas that are not quite right?" And the suggestions so far have been awesome.
posted by lieberschnitzel at 7:13 AM on November 15, 2017

How about the Horrible Histories series? I loved that when I was 11 (and still do).
Or First Second's line of Science! comics. There's a great one about the Wright Brothers there.

Would your local or school librarians have any suggestions for Historical Fiction? I read a lot of that when I was his age and it got me interested in historical experiences through the characters' stories. There has got to be a TON of historical-fiction-from-the-pov-of-a-child with lots of hard truths about history in it. Because of that, I was reading about medieval arranged marriages, child labor, and the dust bowl as a kid.
posted by Geameade at 7:20 AM on November 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

How about pop science books like the ones by Mary Roach? Mary Roach is an American author, specializing in popular science and humor.[1] As of 2016, she has published seven books,: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003), Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (2005) Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void (2010), My Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (2013), and Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War (2016).

The Orchid Thief is also really interesting. I was very intrigued to learn about the spice hunters and orchid hunters of times past. Very well written too.

Also, Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone about Ebola is great.

I’m also trying and failing to remember the titles and authors of books about animal researchers. I know I’ve read some really interesting stuff about the people who study gorillas and worked with Koko.
posted by MadMadam at 7:27 AM on November 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

Not quite what you're looking for, but at 10 or 11 or so I discovered 1066 and All That, which is a comic version of British history that made me suddenly want to know all the parts they were making fun of that I didn't already understand. Which because it was a specific direction, made it easy for me to find stuff at my school library.

Dave Barry Slept Here (his "history" of the United States) might also work for this.
posted by Mchelly at 7:31 AM on November 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Apologies that this is not a non-fiction recommendation, but has he read the Jupiter Pirates books?

These are SUPER fun YA fiction about "space pirates" -- really well-written, engaging, and age-appropriate. Highly recommend if you think he has interest in sci-fi or pirate themes.

I will keep thinking about non-fiction ...
posted by mccxxiii at 7:33 AM on November 15, 2017

For non-fiction about the American West, maybe Jack London's memoir "The Road", about growing up poor and then spending time as a hobo? It might be a little rough for a sensitive ten year old (I haven't read it for years and I don't remember quite how rough, you might want to read it first), but fascinating and engaging.
posted by LizardBreath at 7:47 AM on November 15, 2017

My son (similar age and reading level) really enjoyed Sheinkin's Bomb and Port Chicago, recommended above. Similar reading-level and enjoyment-level, I think, was The Boys Who Challenged Hitler. He also read and enjoyed Symphony for the City of the Dead, which seemed to be along the same lines of reading level, though I did worry that this last one was too depressing (it covers the siege of Leningrad).
posted by Mid at 7:58 AM on November 15, 2017

Steven Jay Gould's essays about evolutionary biology (there are a whole lot of collections of them)? They're obviously aimed at adults, but they're chatty and engaging, and the short form makes them more accessible to a kid who's stretching, I think.

(Basically, I don't know your kid, but if he's ten and you're having trouble keeping enough books in the house for him, my bet is that the limit on what he should be reading is sort of interest, emotional appropriateness, and necessary background knowledge to make something comprehensible, rather than actual reading skill.)
posted by LizardBreath at 7:58 AM on November 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

If he hasn't read all of Terry Pratchett I would recommend starting those.
Here is a nice comprehensive reading guide to get you started.
posted by koolkat at 8:06 AM on November 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

He might be a good candidate for a home encyclopedia set (and it doesn't have to be perfectly up to date.) If that's something that sounds useful, you could involve him in the choice by looking through the ones available in your local libraries (older editions can often be checked out) and asking your librarians for advice.

Sure, online encyclopedias, including Wikipedia, exist, but there's something great about the serendipity of discovering new interests just because they're alphabetically adjacent. And editing for length (at the very least) is a good thing.
posted by asperity at 8:11 AM on November 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

I was your kid.

I glommed onto the entire genre of Book By Vets at that age - the James Herriot stuff, sure, but there are a couple other authors that did similar gentle-memoirs-of-a-veterinarian kinds of things. One I especially liked was All My Patients Are Under the Bed - instead of being a memoir by a country vet who specialized in farm animals, this was a city vet who specialized in cats. I just went to Goodreads in search of "authors like James Herriot" to see if there was a Western author who specialized in horses or something - maybe this guy?

Goodreads has also reminded me of Farley Mowat, who was a conservationist and naturalist rather than a vet. I've not read his work, mind you (except for excerpts here and there) but I know that among the things he's written about, along with his conservation work, are memoirs about a family dog and his attempt to live on a houseboat off the coast of Newfoundland.

There are also a ton of "random assortments of weird facts" kinds of books, like an Incomplete Education and things like that. As I assumed, there are such books that specialize in parts of the West - here's one I just found about Death Valley.

My own local librarian eventually threw me at the mysteries and called it a day, too.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:20 AM on November 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

Oh, I will also continue to think about history books in general. There are a couple I am thinking of that'd be perfect a couple years in the future (they're anthologies of excerpts from high school history textbooks, and I think they'd be a tiny bit out of reach even for a high-level 10-year-old; but I can post names if you want to think ahead a couple years).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:22 AM on November 15, 2017

Farley Mowat reminds me of Gerald Durrell, specifically "My Family And Other Animals", which is him growing up on a Greek island with a very strange British family and an obsession with animals and natural history. He wrote a whole lot of other books about collecting animals for zoos, but some of those might be questionable for casual colonialism/racism/sexism (nothing too insanely horrifying, as far as I recall, but jocular writing from the period goes in that direction pretty easily).
posted by LizardBreath at 8:42 AM on November 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh man, an encyclopedia set is such a good idea. We bought an outdated (but not used) set of Encyclopedia Britannica off Ebay for like $200 and my son has spent hours and hours reading it.
posted by Mid at 8:43 AM on November 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

I was quite riveted by Roald Dahl's memoir of his childhood at that age. You should know that it includes a lot of detail about the almost laughably violent treatment boys suffered at boarding school at that time, I think his memories of being caned take up like half the book, but I don't remember being bothered by it, as a middle class American kid I was more fascinated by the highly exotic to me depictions of prewar British boarding school life. The book also really praises and affirms the wonders of being a bookworm as a kid, and is filled with that extremely healthy distrust of authority that is a hallmark of Dahl's writing.
posted by cakelite at 8:52 AM on November 15, 2017

Oh, and if he likes animals I totally second the James Herriot books, I devoured them at that age. It has also left me with a lifelong impression that large animal vets spend most of their time with half their arm up a cow.
posted by cakelite at 8:55 AM on November 15, 2017 [11 favorites]

I remember really enjoying Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey, though I might've been a year or two older than ten?
posted by dizziest at 9:16 AM on November 15, 2017

My 8 year old just finished My Brother Sam is Dead.

And almost anything by Gary Paulsen may appeal to him. My husband and son read a number of his books together, but definitely now my son is old enough to read some of these on his own. Hatchet would be a great one for a kid that age.

And he's definitely old enough for Lemony Snicket. The great thing about Lemony Snicket is it doesn't talk down to kids.

I'd also recommend the Tiffany Aching books by Terry Pratchett, but really any Terry Pratchett book would be okay for a 10 year old.

Turn Homeward Hannalee is one of my all time favorite historical novels.

Bread & Roses, Too is a beautiful novel about historical events that don't get nearly enough attention and would be great for a 10 year old.
posted by zizzle at 9:18 AM on November 15, 2017

I know you asked for nonfiction but Johnny Tremain is historical fiction about a preteen boy in the American Revolution.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:49 AM on November 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

You might consider Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland, by Sally M. Walker. Got a bunch of award nominations/awards and is listed for age 12+, so might just work for your son.
posted by gudrun at 10:02 AM on November 15, 2017

How about Trick or Treatment which has a lot of history about the development of evidence based medicine.
posted by Sophont at 10:11 AM on November 15, 2017

Someone upthread mentioned popsci books aimed at adults and this is a great suggestion because in my experience they are often written at a fairly basic level.
posted by poffin boffin at 12:22 PM on November 15, 2017

Cheaper By the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes.
posted by brujita at 1:46 PM on November 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

My 10-y.-o.'s favorite non-fiction read these days is Amy Stewart's Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities. I think she found it a natural extension of Harry Potter, with the benefits of it being true and of containing lots of offbeat anecdotes that she can tell me.
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:48 PM on November 15, 2017

Not nonfiction, but the American West etc. makes me think of some classics: everything by Laura Ingalls Wilder and survival stories like My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George and Hatchet by Gary Paulsen.

Now I'm reminiscing about all the "orphan" type books I read at that age. A key part of imagining an independent future I think...

Also there's nothing wrong with a kid reading only fiction. It builds empathy and imagination and often presents very real things about the world for discussion (like you've probably seen in the case of historical fiction).
posted by purple_bird at 3:00 PM on November 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Bill Bryson , Short History of Nearly Everything may qualify (I have read). My niece loved Jules Verne (fiction) at that age. Isaac Asimov has some youth nonfiction that was great though that may have the wrong focus.

Has he read Little House in the Praririe and any associated non-fiction about it?
posted by typecloud at 4:43 PM on November 15, 2017

Nick Bertozzi is a graphic novelist who makes historical books for kids - Shackleton, Andy Warhol, Lewis + Clark...
posted by Geameade at 7:54 PM on November 15, 2017

I am also recommending the Tiffany Aching books of Terry Pratchet. I read them to my now 11 year old over the past two years and he *loved* them.

You get to do the voices too if you choose to read them to each other.
posted by Twicketface at 4:01 PM on November 16, 2017

Some recommendations from my own advanced-reading fifth grader:
posted by mbrubeck at 4:31 PM on December 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

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