With fall just around the corner, the Diverse BookFinder will soon feature middle grade and young adult books, fiction and nonfiction. We know nonfiction can be intimidating for some readers, and it’s been a while since our last dedicated blog post, so to celebrate our upcoming expansion, we’ve invited one of our team members to talk about how to find great reads for any age.
Jesse Mixson (she/her) is a library worker and game master at the University of Florida. She earned a Bachelor of Science in journalism from the University of Florida, with focuses in science journalism and editing. Her curiosity has taken her out of the newsroom, but never far from research. She has written for WUFT, UF Explore, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
I think people who say they miss reading "like a kid" are on to something.
Specifically, when I hear someone talk about how fun reading used to be, I hear what anyone needs to get excited for a book. They need it to be fun! They need it to be accessible, even when it challenges them. They need it to not feel like an obligation.
This is especially relevant when it comes to nonfiction. It can get a bit of a bad reputation, lumping everything together with the driest of texts, but really, nonfiction is rooted in the joy of discovery.
With that in mind, I’ve collected eight tips to help readers, and would-be readers, of all ages explore the vast world of nonfiction and find some of that joy for themselves.
Tip #1 - Start Where You Are
Just like it’s easier to learn to cook scrambled eggs before making souffles, it’s important to find books that match your current skills and needs. If a book is too simple, it risks feeling boring or condescending. Too complex, and it may frustrate or discourage instead.
If you like the idea of a book, but it isn’t quite the right fit, look for adaptations! Many books have "young reader" and "adult" editions.
"Your Place in the Universe" by Jason Chin
Chin starts by defining what an inch is and using the book itself as a unit of measurement before scaling up to increasingly complicated concepts.
"Chasing Space" by Leland Melvin
Here, Melvin has rewritten his memoir for middle grade readers, simplifying language and even adding at-home experiments to complement his work.
"Packing for Mars" by Mary Roach
Roach uses humor and approachable language to explore a variety of spaceflight-related topics, from how astronaut teams are chosen to how they keep clean once in space. (This also has a young reader edition!)
Tip #2 - Break It Up
Clear, frequent stopping points make space for you to absorb what you’ve just read, and identifying distinct parts helps make the final picture clearer. It also makes it easier to stop and resume reading. This is true no matter the cause: the book is short, the chapters are short, or the text is otherwise broken up with space or headers.
"Tenacious" by Patty Cisneros Prevo
Each brief profile uses simple headers to organize information and tie them together with the resources and note in the back.
"The Stonewall Riots" by Gayle E. Pitman
This collection uses 50 objects to establish a timeline and contextualize significant moments in U.S. LGBTQ+ history.
"The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2020" by Michio Kaku
The "Best American" series features works chosen by guest experts and lets readers sample some of the best new writing in a given category. (Others include short stories, essays, mystery and suspense, science fiction and fantasy, and food writing.)
Tip #3 - Look At Pictures
What illustrates a concept better than pictures? Images are great for showing details, visualizing data, and even just breaking up text and keeping readers engaged. The rising popularity of graphic nonfiction takes this even further, presenting the entire text in comic form.
"Blue" by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond and Daniel Minter
Brew-Hammond and Minter use gorgeous illustrations and many different blues to walk readers through the histories, cultural contexts, and even basic science of color.
"Cities" by Megan Clendenan and Suharu Ogawa
"Cities" is a perfect example of illustrated nonfiction, with each page combining Clendenan’s accessible writing and Ogawa’s vibrant artwork to show infrastructure from around the world.
"We’ll Soon be Home Again" by Jessica Bab Bonde and Peter Bergting
This comic anthology collects six Shoah survivors’ experiences, offering glimpses at the diversity of Jewish communities targeted by the Holocaust.
Tip #4 - Find Stories
As its name implies, narrative nonfiction reads more like a novel than a textbook. This subgenre focuses on the stories around the facts: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? You can also think about how some documentaries narrow in on an "arc" in someone’s life or personify an animal to talk about its habits.
"Swimming with Sharks" by Heather Lang and Jordi Solano
This picture book follows Clark’s life and her passion for the sea, with plenty of shark trivia along the way.
"The In-Between" by Katie Van Heidrich
In her memoir in verse, Van Heidrich addresses a variety of common and uncommon adolescent concerns, from friendship troubles to being unhoused.
"Hidden Figures" by Margot Lee Shetterly
Lee Shetterly does such a compelling job telling the stories of Black women mathematicians whose work made spaceflight possible that this book was adapted into a successful movie. Shetterly also has a Young Readers Edition and Picture Book on the same subject.
Tip #5 - Get Personal
Books that focus on an individual or small group can put a face to larger topics, helping readers contextualize information and avoid feeling overwhelmed. The best memoirs and biographies not only tell you about their subject’s experiences, but offer insights into the times, places, cultures, and other people that made them.
"I Am Farmer" by Baptiste Paul, Miranda Paul, Elizabeth Zunon
Through the story of Tantoh Nforba, readers are introduced to the Cameroonian environmentalism movement and how it came to be
"The Grizzly Mother" by Hetxw’ms Gyetxw (Brett D. Huson) and Natasha Donovan
This ongoing series highlights important animals in the Gitxsan Nation, teaching readers about their behaviors and roles within their culture and environment.
"From Here" by Luma Mufleh
Mufleh discusses how her various identities have shaped her life, following her journey from a Muslim lesbian in Jordan to a refugee advocate in the United States.
Tip #6 - Play Favorites
One of the easiest ways to get excited about nonfiction is to appeal to existing interests. This includes books by and about celebrities, but also broad topics, like animals, computers, music, etc.
"Radiant Child" by Javaka Steptoe
Steptoe illustrates this picture book biography in Basquiat’s eye-catching style, drawing readers in while discussing his life and work.
"Troublemakers in Trousers" by Sarah Albee and Kaja Kajfez
This vibrant fashion anthology also serves as an examination of gender roles and norms throughout world history.
"Victory. Stand!" By Tommie Smith, Derrick Barnes, Dawud Anyabwile
Olympian Tommie Smith’s graphic memoir is rich with his thoughts on sports (including his most famous race), intercut with vignettes from his personal life and broader civil rights history.
Tip #7 - Get Active
Many children’s books include activities to show readers how to put new ideas into practice. As target audiences get older, activities tend to shift toward dedicated books (cooking, crafting, etc.) with one significant exception: discussion questions. Even without a book club, these are great opportunities to spark conversations and direct personal reflection.
"Harlem Grown" by Tony Hillery
After telling the true story of a community building an urban farm, Hillery offers readers resources and a challenge to start their own gardens, wherever they may be.
"Girls Who Code" by Reshma Saujani
This is an explicitly activity-focused book with a combination of encouraging lessons and a variety of projects for readers to test their skills.
"On the Curry Trail" by Raghavan Iyer
By incorporating actual recipes throughout, Iyer lets the foods and their contexts enrich each other as readers learn about curries from around the world.
Tip #8 - Push Yourself
Finally: keep going! Don’t be afraid to try books in another language, books that play with style, books about new topics, or books that dig deeper into topics you already enjoy.
Two common jumps are people using children’s books to learn a new skill, and teenagers picking up adult nonfiction in search of more niche or advanced texts, or else just "more" to read.
"Sharuko" by Monica Brown and Elisa Chavarri
This bilingual biography is well-suited to share how Julio C. Tello and his work brought greater recognition of Indigenous Peruvian people and cultures, locally and around the world.
"Star Child" by Ibi Zoboi
Zoboi blends a more traditional biography with poetry to discuss the life and work of the author Octavia E. Butler.
"Four Lost Cities" by Annalee Newitz
Newitz takes readers on a world tour to talk about the people, techniques, and systems that built — and brought down — four ancient cities.
With these tips in mind, you’re now ready to browse the Diverse BookFinder’s nonfiction collection. Go forth and happy reading!
Looking to purchase any of the titles above? Make sure to visit our BookShop page!
Disclosure: We are an affiliate of Bookshop.org & will earn a commission if you make a purchase.