Non-fiction students should read

What non-fiction books should students read? Jay Mathews is looking for suggestions.

Elie Wiesel’s Night, about his boyhood in the Holocaust, and Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It, about his childhood abuse, are the only non-fiction books on Accelerated Reader’s list of  top 20 books read by high schoolers, Mathews points out.

Will Fitzhugh, who publishes student research papers in the Concord Review, complains that students have little exposure to non-fiction.

A relatively new trend in student writing is called “creative nonfiction.” It makes Fitzhugh shudder. “It allows high school students (mostly girls) to complete writing assignments and participate in ‘essay contests’ by writing about their hopes, experiences, doubts, relationships, worries, victimization (if any), and parents, as well as more existential questions such as ‘How do I look?’ and ‘What should I wear to school?’” he said in a 2008 essay for

Students have trouble understanding non-fiction because it “requires more factual knowledge.” Channeling E.D. Hirsch, Mathews writes:

Students don’t know enough about the real world because they don’t read non-fiction and they can’t read non-fiction because they don’t know enough about the real world.

On my father’s recommendation, I read John Hersey’s Hiroshima when I was in high school. I also read The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman and a lot of American history.  But I don’t think teachers assigned non-fiction ever.  My daughter was assigned Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters First 100 Years, which she thought was added to the reading list for diversity rather than literary quality.  Memoirs seem to be the only form of non-fiction that students are asked to read.

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  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Far be it from me to speculate about some nefarious intent here.
    But, other than the most delusional airy-fairy nonsense, only a nefarious intent answers.
    To promote this sort of thing, you have to see something actively negative in non-fiction. Not merely unfun, or boring, or irrelevant. Schools are overrun with that stuff and always have been.
    It might be said, with some kind of fantastical assertions which are so groundless as to be incapable of address, buttressed with dewy-eyed drizzle about the little dears’ emotional actualization, that writing about self is the only way to go. And perhaps some educrats and teachers actually think that way.
    But I’d have a hard time selling myself on the proposition that people doing that actually believe themselves. Most people with an IQ higher than a cherrystone clam are too smart to believe that.
    There are other bloggers who have commenters referring to “gramscian” and the “long march through the institutions” (Bomber Bill Ayres is an education prof) who might be on the right side.
    If kids don’t have a clue how the world works, they can be easily manipulated.
    Reading non-fiction could be dangerous to the gramscians’ (whoever they were) plans.
    Me, I don’t know. But I can’t think of any positive reasons to do this, and, as I say, you can’t promote this without positing some kind of negative associated with non-fiction. And that would be an interesting discussion.

  2. Biographies!! Gallenkamps’s bio of Roy Chapman Andrews, Dragon Hunter, is a fascinating look at the “real Indiana Jones” and the fundraising behind the scenes. Andrews wrote a whole series of “All About” books in the 50s and 60s that were great introductions to paleontology for elementary schoolers–who all dig dinosaurs. There’s also plenty of stuff in the history of science that’s accessible to elementary and high school students. Unfortunately, these are the sorts of books that teachers don’t recommend, and only savvy, sneaky parents provide to their kids.

  3. Mark Roulo says:

    Far be it from me to speculate about some nefarious intent here.
    But, other than the most delusional airy-fairy nonsense, only a nefarious intent answers.
    To promote this sort of thing, you have to see something actively negative in non-fiction.

    I’m going to assume that “this sort of thing” means either “1) having high school students read very little non-fiction” or “2) writing creative nonfiction.”

    In neither case do we require malicious intent.

    For (1), it is enough that non-fiction can (and often *IS* significantly harder to read than fiction. The vocabulary is often tougher, the sentences are longer (which tends to track harder grammar), and more background knowledge can be required to make sense of the text. Giving kids easier reading material (because they *CAN’T* handle the tough stuff or because don’t think that they can) can easily explain (1) without requiring an evil villain.

    I’ll note that the basic elementary school readers were significantly simplified between the 1920s and the 1930s, so we do have some precedent for this sort of making-things-easier.

    For (2) we can also explain things by noting that this sort of writing may be much easier than either (a) writing fiction, or (b) writing essay-like non-fiction explaining something or defending a position. Again, if the desire is to make things easier for the students, then we don’t need conscious villains.

    -Mark Roulo

  4. Why are we giving Jay Mathews suggestions? What does he have to do with anything?

    In any case, since he is such an expert on AP, all he has to do is look at the course description for AP Lang and Comp, which embraces “the literature of fact.” Here he shall find titles galore.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    As I said, there has to be an actively negative aspect to the non-fiction. It’s only tougher than fiction if you pick non-fiction written at a level higher than the proposed fiction.
    I’m not particularly impressed by creative non-fiction, which is either what I did on my summer vacation, or some encouragement to dig into pre-pubescent neuroses (our motto, if you don’t have a neurosis, we’ll get you one), neither of which seems useful and neither of which strains, which is to say educates, comprehension or vocabulary.
    Back forty or fifty years ago, there was a biz psychology technique called the “T-group” named, originally from the layout of the tables. In a tee-shape. Anyway, it was reputed to have some aspects of self-criticism and resulted in a number of executives running sobbing from the room. While that was probably not the goal, the drama was a hell of a sales tool.
    And a similar technique wrecked an order of nuns –see “Sisters”–and that sort of thing is why I think forced navel-gazing is a bad idea. Not without professional guidance and that does not include a jr hi teacher with a hundred kids in her classes, or a hundred fifty.
    In my business, I occasionally deal with people who are so ignorant of how things work that practically anything I mention impresses them as some kind of underhanded method of screwing them over. You fill out applications for whatever. They never have and haven’t a clue and the prospect of a large company looking this stuff over brings the paranoia.
    I like fiction. But we’re talking about education.
    You want educational fiction, try Heinlein’s juveniles. Or Rosemay Sutcliff. See how the librarians like that. Especially Heinlein.
    Sweet Valley High….nope.

  6. I thought Hiroshima wasn’t a particularly good read. Sort of dry and detached.

    Far superior to Night, I think, are the works by Primo Levi.

    Where There Is No Doctor is so good that I ordered several copies for my classroom.

    The Communist Manifesto is good.

  7. Kevin Smith says:

    “The Sun Shines Bright” by Isaac Asimov. Or any other of his non-fiction “bring science to the public” works. Sooooo much better than the horrible science books we issue in school today.

    That being said the best education I ever got in a single weekend was reading “Fantastic Voyage” one weekend in fifth grade.

  8. The old Landmark books are wonderful reads.

  9. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Shirer.
    A Distant Mirror, Tuchman.
    Plagues and Peoples, McNeill. (I also like, The Great Mortality.)
    Rats, Lice and History, Zinsser.

    I agree about Asimov’s nonfiction.

    A Day in the Frontal Lobe, Firlik.

    The trouble is, one must know something about the world to understand nonfiction. This is one category in which boys do better, as many boys enjoy nonfiction, and should be encouraged to read it

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    I recall the day of the month when my Landmark Book would arrive. Couldn’t wait to get home from school to get it.
    Cranberry. For disease fun, see Mann’s recent 1491. Zinnser reads a bit oddly until you figure out that penicillin was just about a year in the future for him.
    Now that Howard Zinn is dead, perhaps we can get back to teaching history.
    I read Toland’s “Battle; The Story of The Bulge” from my HS library. I seem to recall a juvenile-ish version someplace.
    If we’re talking of HS-level, Fehrenbach’s “This Kind of War”, about Korea and, among other things, the place of a military in a liberal society, is good.
    Problem is, the teacher would have to know some military history and military affairs–cough/hack/snort–to provide context.
    My HS had Hersey’s “Hiroshima”, which, given I was in the class of 62, had a certain immediacy.
    Anybody remember “Story of Nations”?

  11. My son’s teacher focuses a lot on non-fiction for reading assignments. My understanding is that the reading comprehension part of the 3rd grade CA STAR test focuses on non-fiction.

  12. For the younger group, the Horrible Histories series is great. It is a whole series starting with the stone age and going through WWII having titles like: Rotten Romans, Terrible Tudors, Viscious Vikings, and Vile Victorians … the author’s quicky sense of humor and the aburd make an interesting historical read.

  13. “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage” by Alfred Lansing is an awfully good read. “Two Years Before the Mast” by Dana, “Lives of a Cell” by Lewis Thomas, “A Brief History of Time” by Hawking, are all good reads. Holldobler and O. Wilson’s book “Ants” was particularly enjoyed by my kids.

    I always have my kids read non-fiction essays by such authors as Chesterton, Woolf, Orwell, etc.

    There’s plenty of wonderful non-fiction out there. Teachers could assign just bits and pieces of anything written by Churchhill or Keegan for younger students.

  14. Richard Aubrey, I wondered about that. There are some recent, adult non-fiction books which are interesting reads in the plague area, but the reader needs some background knowledge to grasp them. The Coming Plague, for example, reads like a thriller, but is now itself out of date, as medical science has made tremendous strides in the last 15 years.

    MN Mom, I’ll try out the Horrible Histories. Have you heard of 1066 and All That? To appreciate the humor, of course, one must have some background knowledge (hmmm, common pattern).

    I remember the old Time-Life Series of illustrated non-fiction. Ideal for rainy afternoons.

    My boys like the DK books, especially the Eyewitness series. The books seem to be organized thematically, such as, Battle, or Weapons, or Victorians, or Christianity. They don’t present a sustained narrative, but they help to build up the knowledge base.

    As I look at the list on these posts, many of the books are not easy reads. A student who reads at a third grade level won’t have a fun time. Part of the trouble, in my opinion, is that so much of the nonfiction for middle school students is, well, dreary. It’s frequently too simple, often aimed at satisfying the requirements of school projects. If you dropped sports heroes, the biography section would take an enormous hit.

  15. There’s a great series of podcasts, 12 Byzantine Rulers, by Lars Brownworth. The podcasts are immensely popular, worth listening to, and free on iTunes. That’s become a book, “Lost to the West,” which I haven’t read yet.

  16. Richard Aubrey says:


    I reviewed 1491 on Amazon. I may have emphasized the disease factor. The book is about the Native Americans, their technologies, their agriculture–Amazonia was a garden, not a rain forest–their social organizations before Columbus.
    It’s about more than disease, but of course the disease issue made a huge difference after 1491.
    IIRC, the Landmark Series had some top names–Mackinley Kantor for Gettysburg–writing for them. Too bad they’re not available in bulk any longer.

  17. There are good non-fiction choices for younger kids. My kids literally wore out two entire (paperback) series of the Usborne history books. I looked online recently and it looks as though they have been combined into a hardback book and there are other Usborne books with both history and science topics. I second the comment on the Eyewitness books. Rosemary Sutcliff has excellent juvenile versions of the Arthurian legend, the Odyssey, the Iliad, the Golden Fleece, Tristan and Isolde etc. plus some great historical novels set in Roman Britain (young male protagonists!). Although not really non-fiction, the legends represent foundational knowledge, as do Greek, Roman and Norse myths and the classic fairy tales (Grimm, Andersen etc) and Aesop’s and La Fontaine’s fables. Eleven Blue Men, a collection of short, true stories, is a classic example of epidemiological research. David Macaulay’s How Things Work, Castle, Roman City etc. are great, with overlays to show how buildings are constructed. National Geographic had many good titles, both history and science and the illustrations are great. I’m not sure how available they are now. There was also an American Heritage series of US history for kids.

    In response to the comment above about librarians and Rosemary Sutcliff: Even in libraries with Sutcliff historical novels, I have never talked with a librarian who knew anything about them. I just ordered copies of all of the titles I lacked and since many are out of print, I was using the B&N used bookseller network. Almost all of the books turned out to be library culls. I wish I could think that they were replaced with anything approaching their quality.

  18. Richard Aubrey says:

    I was in a B&N and asked about Sutcliff. They didn’t have any but suggested a couple of YA novels about Iron Age warrior princesses–none named Boudicca–with the implication that having female protagonists was better.
    James Burke had a series called “Connections” on PBS about how technology and society changed, one thing leading to another (distilling Scotch whiskey to steam power…) and I’ve seen it condensed into a book which supposedly has substantial illustrations.
    Andre Norton’s pre-Witchworld hard sci-fi was juvenile, pretty good reading with lots of action. Not tough at all. Good concepts; individual freedom, danger of the State, and her youthful protagonists, one reviewer said, all seem to be looking for a family. As was Harry Potter.
    Goes back fifty years, at least.
    Still, fiction or non-fiction require the teacher to be able to provide some context, and that could be a problem with the Zinned-up ed schools and texts we have these days.

  19. Richard: I first discovered the Sutcliff novels while searching for books for my history-loving son. Most of the historical novels seemed to have female protagonists, like most of the other juvenile fiction. I remember hearing the trend described as “wonder woman and the wimp”; stupid boys being rescued by girls. Small wonder that boys are turned off by that stuff.

  20. A thought just occurred. There are historical events which have been celebrated in poetry: Charge of the Light Brigade, Evangeline, Paul Revere’s Ride, Old Ironsides, In Flanders’ Field, much of Kipling etc. There are also many speeches and letters; Gettysburg Address, FDR’s day of infamy, various Churchill, the Lincoln letter to the mother whose sons all died in the Civil War etc. Although not strictly non-fiction, there are some great speeches in Shakespeare’s history plays which could be incorporated into discussion of the relevant historic events.

  21. Richard Aubrey says:

    mom. Try getting Kipling in and you’ll think Mark Twain, Huck Finn, and the “n” word were a walk in the park.

    Most of the YA or juvenile books I recall had the male protagonist and the female come onstage at different times for different reasons. They partnered up and, at the end, it was implied they were an item.
    The young woman was a competent, effective actor. You’ll recall the comedies where the hero is fighting with some guy and the heroine bonks the bad guy over the head with the chamber pot? She thens clasps her hands to her mouth in fright, after which the hero takes her away to escape other bad guys or something.
    Sutcliff’s young women would have knifed the guy in the kidney and then told the young man it’s time to get shifting. No strong male hero and fainting heroine. Good examples for both genders.

  22. I’m coying all the great recommendations for my grandkids and have sent the links to a teacher in my family. Also – the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan Museum, National Geographic and the National Archives all have good stuff in history, art, sciences etc. and all have good websites. Of course, the Archives and museums have on-site stores. National Geographic used to have at least one, in the DC area, but I don’t know if it still exists.

  23. Richard Aubrey says:

    Oh, yeah. I reviewed Sutcliff’s “Sword Song” for Amazon. It wasn’t a particularly well-done review, imo. But seventeen of seventeen people thought it was helpful. Which means, even at this late date, there were seventeen people looking for it. That’s good news.

  24. Good point about Kipling; I was thinking of what kids might like, not about the politics of it all.

    Bauer and Wise’s The Well-Trained Mind is a curriculum framework for homeschooling in the classical tradition; literature, science, history. It is a useful reference for parents/teachers in general,though, since it is organized by year and there are many extra resources listed for each subject. A lot of good non-fiction is included.

  25. I don’t think the DK and Usbourne products count as books. The format is a two-page spread with pictures and captions. Those fill the occasional bill, but I think linear text is better than a collection of captions.

    An example of a great book for older kids would be David Howarth’s 1066: The Year of Conquest.

    It is very well written. It covers the history and advances an argument about why the English king Harold fought so badly (beyond being exhausted from marching his men down from York where they had just routed a coincidental Viking invasion). I think we should try to put good prose into kids’ hands as much as possible, and the DK/Usbourne things barely count as prose.

    Another surprisingly well-written book is Ulysses S. Grant by Steven O’Brien. It is written for about middle-schoolers. I was really wowed by the writing: a model of clear, subtle prose, quite unlike most jr high biographies.

  26. I think the DK and Usborne books are perfectly acceptable for young kids (early-mid ES), especially for reading/discussion with a parent or teacher. The books that have been recommended cover a very wide range of ages/grades/reading-subject area backgraound.

  27. Let me second Mike Anderson’s suggestion of biographies. In high school, I’d never heard of Clarence Darrow — a lawyer pal of my dad’s recommended his biography and I was hooked on Darrow and modern American history.

  28. Many of the books on this growing list are not new. If you run across a copy of an older, worthy non-fiction book at your local library, please check it out! You don’t have to read it, but libraries do track books’ circulation records. If a book hasn’t been checked out for a while, it may be culled.

  29. Inigo Montoya says:

    There’s a ton of non-fiction that would appeal to high school age kids’ interests and imagination.

    To stay within their attention spans, Lewis Thomas’ “The Medusa and the Snail,” or “The Lives of a Cell.”

    Or any number of things from “The Norton Reader: An Anthology of Nonfiction.”

    For fun with some historical distance, Mark Twain’s journalism.

  30. I read this book and would not recommend it to most students. While I would not prohibit an interested student from reading it, I would approach this particular book with caution. As a teacher of many years, there are a few students (and their parents) who would be highly (and unnecessarily) upset by such a book. While I admire the courage and success of the author, I’d keep a book like this for AFTER high school, and not make it part of a required reading while in high school. I don’t think negativity should be forced on students. I read this book several years ago, and still feel upset when I think about it, for reasons I will not go into in this post.

  31. Cranberry says:

    MN Mom: the Horrible Histories listings on Amazon are now out of stock. They weren’t last week! I think you sparked a run on the titles.

    I ordered some of Terry Deary’s books through our library. Our boy in elementary school loves them. Thank you for the recommendation.