14 Non-Fiction Books For Bright Under-12s
That can mean reading with your kids, taking them to the local library, or finding them some great books as gifts that you know they’ll really love. Whether that’s fiction or non-fiction, they’re sure to gain something from reading – but the advantage of non-fiction is that it can help to pique their interest in their school subjects, and might even lead them to discover a long-term fascination with a particular topic.
Spanning a variety of topics and approaches, here are our recommendations for the non-fiction books bright under-12s shouldn’t miss out on.
1. The Travel Book by Malcolm Croft (age 8+)
For young bookworms who enjoy travel and encylopedias, the Lonely Planet’s Travel Book explores 200 different countries, including facts, trivia, illustrations and photos of each of the countries mentioned. The book covers a wide variety of detail about the countries, such as the sports that people play, the food they eat and the festivals they celebrate. But it isn’t all about people and culture; the book also explores the geography and wildlife of each location. Great for leaving on the table to browse through as and when, this book should serve to make the distant parts of the world feel less remote, and encourage readers to learn more about any countries they found particularly fascinating. The only danger is that kids reading this might want their next present to be return flights!
2. The Horrible Histories series by Terry Deary (age 8+)
This classic series of books is a must-read for anyone who finds their history lessons that little bit too sanitised. Best avoided by readers who don’t like gory details, Horrible Histories carry the tagline “history with the nasty bits left in” and do their best to live up to it. That means there are plenty of descriptions of (for instance) Aztec human sacrifices, or the ways in which the Tudors executed traitors, all written up in a wry anti-establishment style and illustrated with cartoons. But the series isn’t just a gore-fest; the books represent a solid, well-researched introduction to each period covered, combining entertaining trivia with important facts that cover the whole of society, from the doings of kings and queens to the lives of peasants.
3. Mesmerized by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno (age 7+)
Subtitled “How Ben Franklin solved a mystery that baffled all of France”, this book tells the story of the encounter between Benjamin Franklin and Franz Mesmer in Paris. Mesmer proposed the theory of animal magnetism, a natural force shared by all animate beings, that he theorised could have all kinds of powers, including the power to heal injuries. Franklin was unconvinced; the book narrates Franklin’s endeavours to disprove Mesmer’s theories. With a combination of steampunk-inspired illustrations and clear explanations of difficult concepts, it’s a good introduction to the concept of the scientific method and how it’s used, as well as being a fun story in its own right. It combines history and science in a way that’s likely to be fascinating to young fans of either.
4. Hitler Youth by Susan Campbell Bartoletti (age 7+)
The Second World War is a feature of most school history syllabuses, even for younger students – but one aspect that is often not explored is the experience of ordinary children in Germany, who were required to show public support to the Nazi regime just as much as their parents were. One way that children were drawn into Nazism was through the pressure to join the Nazi paramilitary group the Hitler Youth. Bartoletti explores the experiences of Hitler Youth members in this Newbery Honor medal-winning book, which is based on a series of interviews with 12 former members, as well as the people they persecuted. For young readers who are curious to understand how people of their own age were treated under Nazism, or how on earth anyone, even as a child, could come to support such an ideology, Bartoletti’s book provides a fascinating and chilling insight.
5. Speak Up: A Guide to Having Your Say and Speaking Your Mind by Halley Bondy (age 10+)
Targeted specifically at girls of US middle school age (typically 11 to 14), this is a self-help book designed to tackle common problems before they appear. Its central message is that whatever girls of that age hear from other sources, their opinions are valuable and their voices worth hearing – so they should speak up. The book covers scenarios including when to speak up and when to stay quiet, and then how to speak up in different contexts, from public speaking to a fight between friends. There are stylish graphics, quizzes and activities through the book as well. Some reviews suggest that mothers could read and discuss the book with their daughters, but it could just as easily be explored by a young reader on their own.
6. Gandhi: A Manga Biography by Kazuki Ebine (age 10+)
The third in a series of manga biographies of different figures, this does what it says on the tin: telling the story of Gandhi’s life with colourful artwork, beginning with Gandhi aged 11 as he first became aware of the inequalities in his society. The artwork won’t be to everyone’s taste, and the writing style is a little formal, but this is nonetheless a worthwhile introduction to one of the most notable figures of the 20th century and its style, though sometimes awkward, does ensure that young readers won’t feel patronised as the story is not dumbed-down.
7. Motor Girls by Sue Macy (age 10+)
The car has always been a symbol of freedom, and so it was for women in the early days of motoring. Subtitled “how women took the wheel and drove boldly into the twentieth century”, this is a book that may well be of interest to young readers of any gender, as long as they’re interested in cars. Macy opens the book by enthusing about her own first car and her passion for cars and driving shines through throughout. This isn’t a dull social history – instead, it’s a story of speed and endurance races, the women who worked as mechanics and ambulance drivers in the First World War, and more, all filled with vintage photographs and illustrations that bring the period to life.
8. Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley (age 7+)
Food memoirs are a popular form of non-fiction for adults, but they don’t normally appear for kids. Relish is a fun exception. It combines comic strips of food-themed incidents in Knisley’s life with kid-friendly recipes that will have them hurrying to the kitchen, from huevos rancheros to her “best chocolate chip cookies”. The art style is quirky and colourful, and has the added benefit of making the recipes much easier to follow, as the comics help to illuminate how each stage of the cooking process works and what the end result should look like. For kids who are already keen cooks, the recipes might seem a bit basic, but this book should work a treat to entice readers into the kitchen for the first time.
9. I Am Malala: Young Readers Edition by Malala Yousafzai (age 10+)
The best-selling book by Malala Yousafzai, advocate for women’s education and Nobel Peace Prize winner, has been adapted for younger readers in this edition – though it’s worth noting that the two versions differ less in terms of complexity of language, and more in terms of the amount of historical and social context given for Yousafzai’s experiences (which is condensed in the young readers edition), so young readers may be happy with either. Malala’s memoir of her remarkable life campaigning for education and being shot by the Taliban as a result is as fascinating as it is inspiring. Written in first person, Malala’s voice shines through and the reader really feels like they have got to know this astonishing young woman and her story.
10. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Young Readers Edition by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, illustrated by Anna Hymas (age 10+)
Another young readers edition, this is the story of William Kamkwamba, a boy from Malawi who was told aged 14 that his parents could no longer afford to send him to school, and that he must stay at home and work on their farm instead. Deprived of a proper education, his family impoverished by a famine, Kamkwamba decided to teach himself by reading books from his local library. In a book about energy, he saw a photo of a wind turbine – and determined to build his own from scrap metal and spare parts. It’s an amazing story – of particular interest to budding scientists and engineers like Kamkwamba, but likely to be inspiring to broader audience too.
11. The Plant Hunters by Anita Silvey (age 8+)
Can botany ever look cool? In this beautifully illustrated book, it just might. Silvey tells the story of the eighteenth and nineteenth century explorers who travelled to the far corners of the world to bring home new specimens. But this wasn’t just a case of struggling to get some cuttings to take. These explorers had Indiana Jones-style swashbuckling adventures, facing extreme terrain and weather, deadly diseases, and animal life that seemed determined to kill them, from tigers to vampire bat – and that’s if the plants themselves didn’t prove to be poisonous. As well as being an exciting read, this book is sure to give readers an appreciation of the sheer lengths that the scientists of the past went to in order to expand our knowledge of the world around us.
12. The Whydah: A Pirate Ship Feared, Wrecked, and Found by Martin W. Sandler (age 10+)
Only one wrecked pirate ship has ever been found: that’s the Whydah, and this book tells its story. Sandler relates its entire history, from its commissioning in 1715, to its attack and capture by pirates two years later, to its discovery in 1984. It’s not just a fascinating insight into life in the Golden Age of piracy, but also into the way archaeologists use artefacts to gain new insights into a particular time. The wreck of the Whydah, effectively a time capsule from the eighteenth century, illuminated our understanding of piracy and caused several popular beliefs to be overturned – which makes it a fascinating read for any budding archaeologists or historians.
13. Bomb by Steve Sheinkin (age 9+)
Nuclear weapons are still terrifyingly relevant in the modern world, and this book explains how they were originally developed and how the technology proliferated, becoming a key factor in the Cold War. It combines an overview of the science with in-depth military and political history, using narrative passages to bring significant events to life or illuminate its extensive cast of characters. The subtitle is “The race to build – and steal – the world’s most dangerous weapon”, and this is much or more a story of politics, espionage and intrigue as it is one of science and engineering. For any readers who finish the book desperate to find out more, it’s as well-researched and sourced as any academic text, so there are plenty of avenues for further reading provided.
14. The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sís (age 8+)
Another non-fiction book that offers the perspective of a child on historical events, this is the memoir of Peter Sís, about his life as a boy growing up in Soviet Czechoslovakia. Passages of Sís’s narrative are interspersed with his own illustrations, usually in black-and-white but splashed with colour to make a point; mostly, the colour is red. It’s an impactful design choice in a book that is atmospheric and evocative, bringing this time that may seem distant to its young readers uncomfortably to life. Sís explores his own enthusiasm for Communism as a young child, followed by growing doubts and disillusionment as a teenager during the Prague Spring of 1968. Maps and timelines help to explain the broader context of Sís’s personal experiences while the memoir style makes it vivid and immediate.
What non-fiction have you or your child enjoyed? Share your suggestions in the comments!
Images: iron curtain; atomic bomb mushroom cloud; green plants; boy and girl playing in back of van; knight; base of the eiffel tower; hitler youth; two girls talking and laughing; woman driving a classic car; malala yousafzai; chocolate chip cookie; pirate ship;