Brainy Parenting

Active nonfiction books, a category of titles that help kids make and do things, are inspirational and interactive, and can aid with students' writing and cross-curricular learning.

“When you close the book, you are left with inspiration and creativity.”

That’s why Lucy, a fifth grader, likes active nonfiction—a term coined by Kristen McLean, director of new business development at Nielsen Book/Nielsen Entertainment. "Active nonfiction" describes a category of books “that help[s] kids make and do things.” It includes everything from craft books and cookbooks to field guides and books that come packaged with models or games.

Gina, a fourth grader, has a clear and simple reason for enjoying active nonfiction: “It teaches you to do the things you want to do.” Jack, also a fourth grader, has a different reason for preferring these books. “You get to do things while you read,” he says. “That makes me feel calmer.”

“When students integrate hands-on active nonfiction titles in their reading life, they have the opportunity to engage with the world around them,” says Donna Sullivan-McDonald, library media specialist at Orchard Elementary School in South Burlington, VT. “My students can't get enough of these highly interactive texts!”

The history

Active nonfiction traces its roots back to the 1980s, when science experiment books, by such authors as Janice VanCleave, Robert Gardner, Seymour Simon, and Vicki Cobb, first became popular. The category waned in the late 1990s and 2000s, but by the mid-2010s, active nonfiction was “popping” again, according to McLean. At the 2016 American Booksellers Association Children’s Institute, she reported a 295 percent jump in active titles in print between 2014 and 2015.

READ: Understanding—and Teaching—the Five Kinds of Nonfiction

McLean credits this renewed interest to the rise of the maker movement and the plethora of YouTube videos that show how to create things or develop skills, such as drawing dinosaurs or playing the ukulele. In 2020, the pandemic further propelled interest in and sales of these titles.

The benefits

While active nonfiction is ideally suited for school makerspaces, it’s a great addition to the school library and classroom collections, too. The clear, straightforward expository text; dynamic design; and careful formatting make the information and step-by-step instructions these books present engaging and accessible to young readers.

When it comes to writing instruction, active nonfiction books can serve as mentor texts for science notebooks and language arts units on procedural writing. “Students start noticing the structure and language authors of these books use—clear headings, concise wording, precise verbs, strong transitions,” says Michele Knott, literacy specialist at Meadowview Elementary School in Meadowview, IL. “These characteristics carry over into their writing, and soon we have experts writing and sharing their own how-to books all around the school.”

Active nonfiction can also play a central role in innovative cross-curricular learning experiences. For example, Tom Bober, school librarian at R.M. Captain Elementary School in Clayton, MO, developed a fantastic activity that looks at how chocolate chip cookie recipes have changed over time.

In response to the heightened interest in active nonfiction from educators as well as booksellers, a wide range of publishers are now producing these books, including smaller mass market publishers like Silver Dolphin Books and Downtown Bookworks; specialized imprints of Big Five trade publishers like Storey Publishing, Odd Dot, and Workman; and large media companies like National Geographic.

The challenges

In the past, it could be challenging to identify great active nonfiction to add to library collections, because these books rarely receive starred reviews or win major awards. But recently, publishers like Lerner and Penguin Random House and book vendors like Perma-Bound and Mackin have begun tagging active nonfiction and other types of informational books with nonfiction category labels. Another great resource for a wide range of children’s nonfiction (and fiction) recommendations is Imagination Soup, a book review website maintained by former teacher and children’s book expert Melissa Taylor.

Unfortunately, even these resources can’t help with another problem—the lack of active nonfiction books created by BIPOC or people from other traditionally marginalized groups. While publishers are now beginning to make equity and inclusion a priority as they acquire fiction and narrative nonfiction, they still have a long way to go when it comes to expository nonfiction. Hopefully, this will change soon. Young readers deserve access to a broad range of fiction and nonfiction titles by a broad range of authors and illustrators.

As nonfiction for children continues to blossom and grow, it’s becoming increasingly clear that these books have the power to inform, inspire, and get kids fired up about reading and learning. That’s why now is the perfect time to start re-evaluating and reinvigorating the nonfiction collection.

8 reinvigorating reading examples

Here are 10 terrific examples of active nonfiction titles:

  • Code This! Puzzles, Games, Challenges, and Computer Coding Concepts for the Problem Solver in You by Jennifer Szymanski
  • Cooking Class Global Feast! 44 Recipes that Celebrate the World’s Cultures by Deanna F. Cook
  • Fairy Tale Science: Explore 25 Classic Tales Through Hands-on Experiments by Sarah Albee
  • Fashion Design for Kids: Skill-building Activities for Future Fashion Designers by Kerri Quigley
  • How to Draw Incredible Dinosaurs by Kristen McCurry and Juan Calle Velez
  • A Kids’ Guide to Dogs: How to Train, Care for, Play and Communicate with Your Amazing Pet by Arden Moore
  • #MeToo and You: Everything You Need to Know about Consent, Boundaries, and More by Hally Bondy
  • Rock, Fossil, and Shell Hunting: The Definitive Interactive Nature Guide by Jennifer Swanson
  • Wildlife Ranger Action Guide: Track, Spot Provide Healthy Habitat for Creatures Close to Home by Mary Kay Carson
  • Yummy Yoga: Playful Poses and Tasty Treats by Joy Bauer

Melissa Stewart has written more than 180 science books for children. She co-wrote 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing Instruction with Children’s Books and edited the anthology Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: 50 Award-winning Authors Share the Secret of Engaging Writing.