10 new “must-read” nonfiction picture books

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10 new must-read nonfiction picture books ~ SimpleHomeschool.net
Jamie Martin, editor of Simple Homeschool, also blogs about motherhood at Steady Mom

The love of good books flows steadily through my bloodstream–always has. I have to admit, though, that I tend to stick to the tried-and-true classics, titles that have staying power and have inspired readers for generations.

But I also love stumbling across a new-to-me book on a library’s shelf and flipping through to discover that it has the makings of a classic after all–it inspires, it teaches, it tells a deeper story. And in the past year there have been many such books released.

Here are ten nonfiction titles, along with excerpts from the reviews they’ve been given, that you and yours might enjoy checking out:

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The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos

by Deborah Heiligman (Author), LeUyen Pham (Illustrator)

“Growing up in Hungary during WWI, Erdos tried school but chafed at the rules and convinced his mother that he should study at home. (Jamie’s note: Woot! Homeschool alert!)

Unable to do common tasks such as cooking, laundry, or driving, he spent his adult life flying around the world, staying with other mathematicians, and working collaboratively on challenging math problems.

This excellent picture-book biography celebrates a man little known outside his field, but one well worth knowing.” ~ Booklist Starred Review

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Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909

by Michelle Markel (Author) , Melissa Sweet (Illustrator)

“In the winter of 1909, a brave girl named Clara Lemlich, only five feet tall, picketed for workers’ rights. She arrived in America along with hundreds of other immigrants from eastern Europe, hardly speaking any English.

But instead of her father being hired, it’s Clara the factories want, and off she goes to make women’s clothing in a garment factory from dawn till dusk.

While the men at the factory don’t think girls are strong enough to strike, Clara proves them wrong, eventually leading the “largest walkout of women workers in U.S. history.” ~ Booklist Starred Review

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Clara and Davie: The True Story of Young Clara Barton, Founder of the American Red Cross

by Patricia Polacco

“The very shy Clara was especially close to her brother, Davie, who understood that she had a severe lisp. After classmates teased her about her speech, Clara, an excellent student, was taught at home. (Jamie’s note: And another homeschool alert here!!)

She and Davie visited the library and borrowed books about nature. Soon, Clara was borrowing medical books as well. Word of her ability spread and she began treating the neighbors’ livestock.

This heartwarming story of sibling devotion and overcoming obstacles will whet readers’ interest and lead them to further study.” ~ School Library Journal Review

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Locomotive (Caldecott Medal Book)

by Brian Floca

“Locomotive is a breathtaking look at a family’s 1869 journey from Omaha to Sacramento via the newly completed Transcontinental Railroad. The unnamed family is a launching point for Floca’s irrepressible exploration into, well, everything about early rail travel, from crew responsibilities and machinery specifics to the sensory thrills of a bridge rumbling beneath and the wind blasting into your face.

It’s impossible to turn a page without learning something, but it’s these multiple wow moments that will knock readers from their chairs. Fantastic opening and closing notes make this the book for young train enthusiasts.” ~ Booklist Starred Review

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The Matchbox Diary

by Paul Fleischman (Author) , Bagram Ibatoulline (Illustrator)

When a young girl meets her great grandfather, she asks him about his old collection of little matchboxes, and he explains that at her age he could not read and write.

To remember his experiences, he kept symbolic things in matchboxes: bones from the cannery where his family worked in the U.S., a tooth he lost when bullies threw rocks at him, a ticket for his first baseball game, and other things he kept to show his progress as he learned to read and rose to become a successful adult.

An excellent title for sharing and discussion, this will resonate with the many kids who will recognize how small, ordinary things can become treasures.” ~ Booklist Starred Review

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On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein

by Jennifer Berne (Author) , Vladimir Radunsky (Illustrator)

It’s not easy to explain the work of Albert Einstein to a young audience, but this marvelous book pulls it off. It does so by providing an overview of Einstein’s life: the way he thought and how his remarkable ideas changed the way scientists think. Berne begins with baby Albert, who didn’t say a word.

And as he got older, he didn’t say a word—but he looked and wondered. When he was a student, his teachers thought he was too different, but his differences led him to think about natural phenomenon like light and numbers in new ways.” ~ Booklist Starred Review

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A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin

by Jen Bryant (Author) , Melissa Sweet (Illustrator)

“Born in Pennsylvania in 1888, Horace Pippin loved to draw and paint as a child. When he was in eighth grade, his father left the family. Horace quit school and worked to support them. Later wounded as a soldier in WWI, he never regained full use of his right arm.

Back home, Pippin began painting again, using his left arm to guide his right. Painting subjects drawn mainly from observation, memory, family stories, and the Bible, this self-taught African American artist was eventually discovered by the art community.” ~ Booklist Starred Review

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Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library

by Barb Rosenstock (Author) , John O’Brien (Illustrator)

This attractive picture book uses Thomas Jefferson’s love of reading and collecting books as a lens through which to view the story of his life. Even as a young child, Tom reads through his father’s library, and as a young man, he collects his own.

He uses what he has learned from books to write the Declaration of Independence, and other papers through his presidency and retirement to 1814, when a fire destroyed the Library of Congress.

The story concludes with Jefferson selling his beloved books to form the basis of the new collection there. An informative author’s note rounds out this appealing introduction to Jefferson.” ~ Booklist Review

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The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever

by H. Joseph Hopkins (Author), Jill McElmurry (Illustrator)

“Katherine Olivia Sessions, who grew up in Northern California in the 1860s, always loved trees. Girls back then weren’t supposed to get their hands dirty, but Kate did. Girls were also discouraged from studying science, but Kate graduated from the University of California with a degree in science in 1881. Postgraduation, Kate moved to San Diego, a desert town with little greenery.

She wrote to gardeners far and wide, seeking out seeds that would thrive in a harsh desert climate, and by the turn of the century, oaks, eucalypti, and palms sprung up throughout the city. A lovely tribute to the pioneering (and environmentalist) spirit, topped off by an author’s note.” ~ Booklist Starred Review

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Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors?: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell

by Tanya Lee Stone (Author) , Marjorie Priceman (Illustrator)

“Women not able to be doctors? There’s a crazy thought! Yet one woman had to be first. Stone and Priceman combine their considerable talents to tell the story of Elizabeth Blackwell, who fought the scorn, the sneers, and the barriers on her way to becoming a physician.

As an adult, prompted by a friend who wished for a woman doctor, Blackwell decided to apply to medical school—and so the rejection began.

Once accepted, she was treated abysmally by her fellow students, until she proved herself smarter than any of them. The extended author’s note will further intrigue readers.” ~ Booklist Starred Review

Enjoy the reading and the inspiration!

“The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”
~ Mark Twain

Originally published on February 17, 2014

About Jamie Martin

Jamie is a mama to three cute kids born on three different continents. She is the co-founder and editor of Simple Homeschool, where she writes about mindful parenting, intentional education, and the joy found in a pile of books. Jamie is also the author of a handful of titles, including her newest release, Give Your Child the World.


  1. Oh my goodness, we’ve read 7 out of these 10! We must have excellent taste 😉

    I will read anything Melissa Sweet illustrates. Anything!
    Sarah M
    Sarah M’s latest post: Birthday Interview // 5

  2. I, like you, tend to stick to the classics, but I have found since we just recently moved to Scotland that they have much different classics. It has opened up my world even more which is a good thing!

    Very much looking forward to checking out this list.
    Johanna’s latest post: On making daily intentional choices

  3. Wow! Thanks, Jamie! And our library system has all 10! I’m putting some on hold now…

  4. I love quality book lists! Thanks for sharing all of these. Looking forward to reading some with my boys!

  5. I’m so excited about these titles! Thank you for sharing them! Even though my girls are a bit older ( eight and nine) I still feel like picture books are an important part of our home library. We have picture books I never plan to part with!

  6. Love, love, love that you’re promoting new titles, Jamie!!

    I’d add some books from last year: Annie and Helen, Electric Ben, and Here Come the Girl Scouts (which made me cry).

  7. These are great! Thank you, thank you! I was just thinking we needed more picture books in our lives. I’ve been reading more towards what my 11 year old wants to hear but my 8 year old is missing the beauty of picture books! This list perfect. Keep the book recommendations coming!

  8. Thanks for sharing this list; I just requested most of them from our library.

  9. Thanks so much for posting these! They look awesome. My son is 12 and still loves having me read picture books to him.
    Heidi’s latest post: Goals and a Schedule as a Lesson Plan Format

  10. These are great, Jamie! Thank you. Paul Fleischman has always been one of my favorite YAL authors. I forgot that he wrote children’s books too! Today is the perfect day for this list- our first bug of the season has hit and we’ll be needing a lot of R&R this week.

  11. Thanks! I’m putting all of these on hold! 🙂
    Catie’s latest post: Living simply and with intention

  12. I’m loving all these resources you’ve been sharing! I’ve been needing a little fresh inspiration for our homeschool 🙂

  13. Thanks so much! I have trouble finding good non-fiction that my kids enjoy and I also enjoy reading to them. I put several of these on hold through our local library system.
    Can’t wait to read them all!

  14. Thank you! I just put every one of these on hold at the library.

  15. This is a great list! I’m certainly bookmarking this and taking it to the library with us this week. Many are quite timely for our discussion of “real life superheroes”!
    Another-Mom’s latest post: About Dulce de Leche

  16. These books look wonderful… so wonderfully inspiring!!! Off to pop more than one of those onto our wishlist!!!

  17. Thanks so much! I put them all on hold through tracpac at our library; looks like others had the same idea as their is a quite a wait, LOL!

  18. Laura Hodgins says:

    Awesome list, read four and had two on my list to read already! I would add The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau by Markel, Emily by Bedard (about the poet), Grandfather’s Journey by Say, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue by Celenza and not exactly true but If You Spent a Day with Thoreau at Walden Pond by Burleigh and a wordless book about the underground railroad Unspoken by Cole

  19. We are always looking for recommended books. These look great. We are going to the library and will pick up the four that are in. The other six have been put on hold. Thanks for an interesting list.

  20. Oh that was amazing. Thank you so much for sharing that with us. It was so helpful. I have put half of them on hold at our library and will pick up the other half today! Yay!!

  21. Thank you for this list! I’ve seen many of the titles at our local library and can’t wait to read them to the kids!

  22. Thank you so much for all your book lists. My kids are loving them. Going to the library tomorrow to find as many as I can. 🙂

  23. These sound lovely – must get them for myself and my boys to chow on sometime soon! Also hope to share this list on my parenting page on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ConsciousParentingApproach – inviting you and your fans to come pass by and say Hello to us too!! See you there!! 🙂

  24. This is an awesome collection of book ideas! I just put them all on my library list… er, OUR library list. I can’t wait to check them out. Thanks for sharing!

  25. These are some of my favorite posts of yours. Thanks for the great recommendations!
    Sarah @ Little Bus on the Prairie’s latest post: Manual Labor – Noah’s Update

  26. Thank you for posting this list!! I’m always looking for new and wonderful books. Can’t wait to read these!

  27. Excellent! I just requested most all of these from our library. Appreciate it!
    Rachel at Stitched in Color’s latest post: all the flowers

  28. I saw the list and we read most of them 🙂 Every one that was available at the library at the time! They were great! If only we all could have room for libraries like Thomas Jefferson… sigh. At least we have access to an awesome library!

  29. Laura Hodgins says:

    Another great one we just discovered was A Home for Mr. Emerson, delightful!

  30. I remember you posting some of these in a list a while back. I ran out and quickly got several of them. A Splash of Red and The Boy Who Loved Math became two of my kids favorites. 🙂 I can’t wait to collect a few more from this list that we haven’t shared yet. Love Love Love reading to my kids about famous and interesting people. So inspiring. Thanks for sharing!

  31. Thanks, Jamie. I don’t know how I missed this last year. I love book lists and just requested these at our local library.

  32. I just placed all these on hold at our local library. Thank you, Jamie!
    Kari Patterson’s latest post: ‘Til the fog lifts…

  33. Love these picks and I’m happy to say that we’ve read them all thanks to our phenomenal little library. Thanks – I’ll be sharing!
    Cait Fitz @ My Little Poppies’s latest post: On Motherhood

  34. What a wonderful list! Thank you.

  35. This looks like a great list, and several of these are new to me! I especially love to see inspiring biographies of women for my girls! I’ll be sharing this post 🙂
    Carolyn’s latest post: 6 Perfect Baby Shower Gift Books

  36. Thank you so much! Your list will help us expand our love of biographical style books. We love Matisse so we enjoyed The iridescence of Birds and Matisse’s Garden. We also loved Mary’s Garden.

  37. They look amazing. Not one in my library though…..

  38. Christina W says:

    For anyone else who finds this helpful: Erdos is pronounced AIR-dish. I recommend googling and listening before trying to read Boy Who Loved Math – which was delightful, and don’t miss the explanation of all the number series that Erdos is pondering through the book.

  39. I’ve requested the one on Paul Erdos from our library.
    Here are a few kids’ books that aren’t mentioned here that explain math concepts in a fun way (that I wish I had when I was a kid):

  40. Ruthann Blundell says:

    Thanks Jamie! I will be enriching our morning basket.

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