“Mrs. S, I can’t find anything in this book. Can I just use the iPad?” Blake closed his book in frustration. This is an all-too-common refrain in my classroom during a short research unit, especially at the start of the year. The materials we gather to research from are not always accessible to them. Often they are thick and the students aren’t sure what keywords to look up in the index. Given the choice, they consistently ask to research online, yet typing keywords into a Google Search box will have them facing thousands of links and they will disappear down the rabbit hole of clicking, with hardly anything to show for it. I needed to find a way to condense the information they were looking for but still have the reading material at an easily accessible level for them. We needed to work on the skills of researching, but also the skills of note taking. Enter nonfiction picture books.
I’ve often said that picture books are just about the perfect length for anything I need to teach. Comprehension skills, story elements, fluency, and more can all be gleaned from a picture book. I’m not sure why it took me so long to add them to our research units, but since we have, we’ve never looked back.
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t teach students how to use longer nonfiction texts or the ways to use a table of contents and index correctly; it is just that nonfiction picture books have become our perfect jumping-off point into the world of research.
Here’s a list of nonfiction picture books we have loved using in my fifth-grade classroom this year to explore basic research principles.
Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart
I like to pair this text with Look Up! and show students how we can pull information on similar topics from multiple sources. Here Stewart creates the feeling of a field journal as she explores the use of feathers—keeping animals warm, for protection, to retain water, and so on. She also shares this information through similes, making this a perfect text for teaching poetry as well as text structure.
Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe by Loree Griffin Burns
Here’s the first book in the Scientists in the Field series that I share throughout the year. In this text Burns tackles the issue of what is happening to our bees and, more importantly, why we should care. She does this in a beautiful narrative nonfiction style that is easy for our students to be drawn into. You can use this book to teach nonfiction text structure, what narrative nonfiction means, and as introductory text for further research.
This is a fascinating account of the journey H.A. Rey and his wife, Margret, took to flee Paris as the German troops marched in. This is a wonderful book to use in a picture book biography unit. Also, the amount of research Borden put in is evident. Students can pore over original photos, ticket stubs, and more.
Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette Le Blanc Cate
This book has a lot going on in it. Each page is chock-full of information, some in captions, some in text, come in comics. That alone makes it exciting for my students. It provides an opportunity to think of how they want to present their information, a typed report, or something more. Students learn about the hobby of bird-watching from this text and are drawn to trying it out for themselves.
Here Katherine Roy delves into a favorite student topic, sharks, but in a completely new way. Neighborhood Sharks is told with beautiful illustrations, not glossy photographs, but these will pull students in even more. There are amazing diagrams to pore over. This is a book for students to research their favorite animal, but also gives teachers a chance to teach the way nonfiction texts are structured.
No Monkeys, No Chocolate by Melissa Stewart
My students love this text from Stewart, not only because it is about their favorite food, but because she has two cartoon bookworms through the text that add humorous comments at every turn. I love that she goes into detail about the delicate balance that is our ecosystem and everything that goes into getting our sweet treat. Also, as a teaching point, this book is fabulous for teaching my students about back matter. Stewart includes further information about cocoa farming and how we can help the rain forest at the end.
Plastic Ahoy: Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by Patricia Newman
Similar in style to the books in the Scientists in the Field series, this book taught my students about a new concept: garbage islands in the oceans. It was high interest, and slipped in a great deal of learning. Fabulous illustrations and great maps make this book a wonderful jumping-off spot from which to learn more about our environment.
Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion by Loree Griffin Burns
Tracking Trash is the second book in the Scientists in the Field series I’m sharing. Although the format of this series isn’t exactly one of a picture book, the size and layout make these books less threatening for my students. That being said, the books in this series are written at a high level. Here Burns teaches us about ocean currents and what happens when ships spill cargo in the middle of the ocean. Your students will be able to pore over illustrations, diagrams, maps, and more. You can use two-page spreads to teach minilessons from.
Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement by Carol Boston Weatherford and Ekua Holmes
This is a powerful picture book biography that tells the life of Fannie Lou Hamer in a way that packs a punch. It looks at the brutality of the time period and what Fannie had to endure, and is told through free-verse poetry. Students could study the writing to create their own poems, to learn more about the civil rights movement, or to be swept up in a story about the triumph of the human spirit.
This list is, of course, not exhaustive. There are many amazing nonfiction books being published all the time that are perfect for your classroom. I hope that this serves as a starting point. The beauty of nonfiction picture books is that my students can explore many topics quickly, narrow in on one they want to study, and then delve into that topic deeply. Reading the picture book first gives them a great deal of background on the subject so they can go to longer texts, additional picture books, or research online, and have a better idea of what information they need to find. This focuses my students, and they feel more confident in their research as a result. Nonfiction picture books truly are the perfect texts.