Non-Fiction for Early Readers – What’s a Parent to Do?

Share a Story Shape a FutureI really have to tell the truth here.  When I think about non-fiction for my boys age’s two and four, I get overwhelmed.  How in the world do I navigate all the books out there and find non-fiction books that they will enjoy?  And more importantly, aren’t over their head?  Fiction?  No problem there a billion picture books out there and I have no problem reaching my library card limit every time I check books out.  But for some reason, non-fiction seems to be a little bit harder for me.  Surely, I’m not the only parent who feels this way.

But here’s four things I’ve learned as a parent navigating the world of non-fiction for very young children.

Take a cue from their current interests!

My kids get really excited when we get a book that they currently have an obsession over.  And what kid doesn’t have an obsession?  Cars? Trucks?  Tractors?  My boys love to point out every single piece of construction and farming equipment that they see.  We called every single one a tractor.  But obviously, they aren’t all called tractors.  Solution?  Hello library!  And hello books about frontloaders, bulldozers, excavators, backhoe loaders, skid steers, power tiller, and cultivators!

My boys are also obsesses over potato bugs.  Or rolly-pollies – whatever you want to call them.  During the summer, they are always pulling up my plants and rocks to see if they can find a collection of bugs.  When we get a picture book with bugs in it, they think that’s the coolest thing ever.  Same goes for spider books.  Oh yes, and let’s not forget the worms.

My kids seem to jump from one interest to another pretty frequently (although trains seems to be the mainstay) and so we read books about their current interests while the iron is hot.

What are your kids currently learning about?

My boys love snakes.  Every time we go to the zoo, my oldest is anxious to get to the snake house as soon as possible.  So I knew the library program with snakes that they could pet would be a huge hit. And it was! To the point that I have to remind the kids that they just can’t pet ALL snakes.  After the program, we picked up a couple of the snake books that they had on display (thank you librarians for making my job easier and having them all pulled already!) and for two weeks those were the only books that they looked at while we were in the car.  As soon as they were strapped in their belts, it was always “Where’s the snake book?”

I’ve also taken hints from their preschool lessons and library storytimes.  This month in preschool their theme is going on a safari, so it’s a perfect time to check out all the animal books.  I’ve found that they get really excited when they learn something in more than one place.  This is especially true for my four-year-old.  Information sinks in so much better when it’s coming at him from multiple directions.

Build on events, family vacations and other milestones.

Last year, when I took my kids on their first camping trip, we read fiction camping books for a month prior to heading out.  The same principle can be applied to non-fiction.  We will soon be taking a family vacation down to Arches and Mesa Verde and now is the perfect time to check out books about rocks, lizards, and the Anasazi people.  We’ve also got a Yellowstone trip planned and I will be reading books about  the earth, nature and wild animals to my boys.  (My librarian was a bit horrified to learn I took their library books to Yellowstone last year!)

Think about what you have coming up in your life and simply pick non-fiction books around that theme.  Not only will your kids learn something but the experience will be that much more valuable to them.

Let the kids pick!

I never know what will catch the attention of my kids so I let them browse the shelves of the library freely.  Even if the text of a book will be over their head or it’s a subject that I can’t even begin to know how to teach, they like to look at the pictures.  Letting the kids know that no subject is off limits will foster a love of learning and curiosity.

As a parent, these are techniques that I’ve found helpful in reading non-fiction to my young boys.  What ideas do you have?  We would love to hear them!

Share a Story, Shape a Future Literacy Blog Tour is being hosted at The Reading Zone today. Please be sure to stop by to find some great posts relating to nonfiction and check out the entire tour this week at Share a Story – Shape a Future.


  1. I agree with all of your hints for introducing non-fiction books to my boys.

    I would suggest mixing your non-fiction with your picture books. We are taking our boys to the Museum of Natural history in a few weeks. Not only did I check out some books about dinosaurs and museums, there are some wonderful story books (How To Bring Your Grandma to the Museum) that blend actual photos with illustrations in a story that the kids really love.

    Remember Dr. Seuss: The more you read, the more you know…

    on March 10th, 2010 at 11:54 am
  2. No particular ideas ( I like what you wrote), but a book recommendation. We love Snowflake Bentley. It’s a sort of hybrid… written as fiction, but nonfiction, and dotted with lots of interesting information to talk about. We read it every winter!

    on March 10th, 2010 at 12:52 pm
  3. [...] Nonfiction for Early Readers- What’s a Parent to Do? at Maw Books Blog- [...]

    on March 10th, 2010 at 2:38 pm
  4. My boys love the DK Eyewitness books. We own several and they are easy to find at the library because all the spines look alike. They are WAY over my boys heads, but they love to sit and examine the pictures on their own (yes, even the Bug). Sometimes I get called in to read a caption or explain something, but not often.

    on March 10th, 2010 at 2:42 pm
  5. thank you for making a blog like this!

    I’ve been feeling the same way as yours,for my little cousins..

    keep it up! thanks again!

    on March 10th, 2010 at 7:50 pm
  6. Great post! Our little girl loves stories about animals and Daddy even snuck in a book about race cars. Great idea to start looking for additional non-fiction books about current interests or activities.

    on March 11th, 2010 at 6:30 am
  7. I agree wholeheartedly about all your suggestions. Now that my oldest is reading independently, I let him pick his own books. He is drawn more to nonfiction than to fiction, as many boys are. I definitely see him leaning more toward the DK books (who wouldn’t! I love them myself!) and to NF graphic novels.

    My youngest is prereading, so I pick out his books. I’m apt to pick up books around a particular holiday or event to build upon what he’s learning in school.

    on March 11th, 2010 at 8:00 am
  8. These are great, easy-to-remember ideas, Natasha. Misa’s point about wrapping nonfiction in story is so valuable, too.

    And don’t forget, the books that teach letters, colors, buttons and snaps, texture, and identify objects are all nonfiction, too!

    on March 11th, 2010 at 4:00 pm
  9. Thanks for the great ideas!! You just made me realize that I do more with the nonfiction genre than I thought I did!! And, I love that you mentioned to let your kids roam free in the library!! Sometimes, I am surprised to see what my son in particular ends up with, but it is usually worth it!! :)

    on March 11th, 2010 at 9:54 pm
  10. Great ideas! I am a storyteller at my local library and often the best read-aloud books are found in the non-fiction section. The kids always enjoy the books that are “real” and frequently request them at the end of story time.
    Non-fiction is also a great way to encourage kids who have a hard time reading. Just like you said, let them roam and find something that interests them… even if it’s snakes, mummies, or dung beetles!
    Also, a frequently overlooked fact is that most story anthologies that contain fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and fables are found in the non-fiction section.

    on March 17th, 2010 at 2:57 pm

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