Best Nonfiction Books of 2021

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If you’re looking for more good nonfiction children’s books, you’ll find a great selection on this list of my favorites from 2021. From biographies to map reading, here are my top picks for the year.

Best Nonfiction Books of 2021

Odd Beasts Meet Nature’s Weirdest Animals
by Laura Gehl, illustrated by Gareth Lucas
Cute rhymes and illustrations provide a playful introduction to unique and cool animals in a darling board book.  “This spider has two horns.”  Back matter shares factual information about each creature like the Long-Horn Orb-Weaver Spider.
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Look What I Found in the Woods
by Moira Butterfield, illustrated by Jesus Verona
I love this picture book of informational text about the woods with interactive questions, engaging writing, and fantastic design. Learn about plants, trees, bark, leaves, nuts, pinecones, and bugs. You’ll appreciate that the last page reminds children to only collect things that they find on the ground.
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What’s in Your Pocket? Collecting Nature’s Treasures
by Heather L. Montgomery, illustrated by Maribel Lechuga
A delightful introduction to both collecting and to famous scientists when they were curious children and their later contributions as adults. Gorgeous illustrations and clear text will captivate readers as they learn about kids like Diego who collected snails as a child and later became a herpetologist, Mary who collected caterpillars and eventually wrote a book on metamorphosis, or Bonnie who collected sea slugs and later helped discover a new kind of sea slug. Readers will be inspired to start their own collections and see where their curiosities take them!
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Let’s Go for a Walk
by Ranger Hamza, illustrated by Kate Kronreif
Ranger Hamza invites you to go for a sensory nature walk! He asks you to notice the colors and then to find things that are red, big and small things, different shapes, bugs, and letters and numbers. Then, he asks you to feel the textures, smell the smells, and so forth. Brightly colored illustrations and text scattered around the pages, this book really engages readers and will teach them to notice the world with all their senses.
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Except Antarctica!
by Todd Sturgell
A stoic narrator begins by sharing information about turtles until…the turtle, who doesn’t live in Antarctica, sets off for Antarctica, making the narrator very irked. Soon, the turtle is joined by other animals also NOT found in Antarctica. Hilarity ensues with an increasingly exasperated narrator and bothered turtle who does not want any traveling companions which include a dung beetle, owl, snake, bee, mouse, and frog. Several pages of back matter explain more information about each animal and the continent of Antarctica.
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Mornings with Monet
by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mary Granpre
Descriptive, sensory writing shows Money waking up early, getting in his boat, and traveling down the river. He waits for the light and then he paints. “A few rays breakthrough; wet leaves droop over winding water.” His efforts and process will show aspiring artists what goes into a master’s painting. Well-written and lovely. “More blue, less violet, some yellow. More reflections, less mist, some horizon. His brush moves back and forth, chasing sunlight.”
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Mars: Earthlings Welcome
by Stacy McAnulty, illustrated by Stevie Lewis
Mars is a planet with a big personality. In first-person narration, Mars shares all its many features that are much better than Earth’s. Like two moons and 37 more minutes in a day! It’s funny, entertaining, and very informative. I would love to use this in a writing class to teach voice, point of view, and even organization.
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We Shall Overcome
by Bryan Collier
The words of this powerful gospel song known often sung during the Civil Rights Movement are illuminated through Bryan Collier’s powerful, oversized illustrations. The illustrations show a young Black girl during her day. She remembers the history of those who have gone before her, like Rosa Parks and ending school segregation, depicted in grayscale. A powerful book that exemplifies the pictures telling most of the story.
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Walrus Song
by Janet Lawler, illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering
Lyrical writing and powerful verbs, this is a beautifully written book with dramatic illustrations and minimal text about the life of a walrus underwater, above water, fighting, making sounds, and more. “Waddle. Walk. Slap! Slap! Walrus lumbers. Flippers flap.” Back matter gives more facts about the life of a walrus. For example, for “Digging, wiggling…seafloor stewing“, it says, “Like a bristled brush, a walrus’s snout sweeps along the ocean floor. Its whiskers are sense organs that feel for clams and other foods.
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I Wish I Had a Wookie and Other Poems for Our Galaxy
by Ian Doescher, illustrated by Tim Budgen
So cute and fun, this playful book of poems will delight Star Wars fans with poems all about kids and their relationship to (and love for) Star Wars. I honestly adore these poems — and there are SO many to read. For example, “Counting Jawas” is a new take on the counting sheep bedtime ritual. “My Room’s the Millennium Falcon” shares how much the boy loves his room and imagines adventures there as if he’s flying in the Millennium Falcon.
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Sonny Rollins Plays the Bridge
by Gary Golio, illustrated by James Ransome
Lyrical and poetic, the writing in this gorgeous picture book brings Sunny Rollins’s passion for his saxophone to life. Rollins, a man who believed in honing his craft, decided to forgo performing and spend his days playing more. With saxophone in hand, he walks to the Williamsburg Bridge where he plays anything and everything just as loud as he wants. He’s accompanied by the noises of the city like clanking clanging subway cars, bass notes from tugboats, and squeaking, squawking seagulls. “Sonny’s breath borne through horn in harmony with ALL around him above the sky deep and blue spread out like a smile over Earth…” Back matter elaborates on Rollins’ career in jazz, the Williamsburg Bridge.
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Stitch by Stitch Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly Sews Her Way to Freedom
by Connie Schofield-Morrison, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon
One of the most outstanding picture biographies of the year with stunning mixed-media illustrations of oil, paint, paper, ribbon, lace, and more! Lizzy, born into slavery, worked as a successful seamstress whose work supported her owners. A group of Lizzy’s patrons and friends in St. Louis helped Lizzy buy her own freedom for $1,200 and when she was free, Lizzy worked to pay them back, stitch by stitch. Now free, Lizzy’s clients included the wives of Senator Jefferson Davis and President Abraham Lincoln, fitting them in elegant gowns that were admired by all, even President Lincoln.
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Cougar Crossing: How Hollywood’s Celebrity Cougar Helped Build a Bridge for City Wildlife
by Meeg Pincus, illustrated by Alexander Vidal
Fantastic writing tells the story of a cougar, P-22, trapped inside the city of Los Angeles in a large park. Along with the pages of the narrative is a conversation between two wildlife biologists who explain more about P22’s story and the fundraising to build a bridge for wildlife to safely use to expand their territory. Earthy-toned, dark illustrations capture the nocturnal cougar’s life and impact on the city’s policies.
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What Is a River?
by Monika Vaicenaviciene
Beautiful writing and illustrations — this is an ode to a river that will engage readers from the first page as the grandma explains to the child about rivers.A river is a thread… it embroiders our world with beautiful patterns. It connects people and places, past and present. It stitches stories together.” In addition to the metaphorical, sensory language, you’ll also read factual information. It’s so full of inspiration and information, it’s a must-read nonfiction book that will enchant even the most reluctant of readers. The only thing I’m not sure about is the typeface which is a part-cursive handwriting font…and some kids can’t read cursive.
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Bodies Are Cool
by Tyler Feder
Celebrate the body with a positive, inclusive representation of bodies of many different color skins, shapes, noses, hair, and so forth with LGTBQ+ couples, mixed-race families, differently-abled people, and different ages, just to name a few kinds of representation. As you read, repeat the book’s refrain, “Bodies are cool.” “Hairy fingers, wrinkly fingers, dimpled elbows, chubby fingers, wobbly arms and stubby fingers. Bodies are cool!
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A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice
by Jasmine A. Stirling, illustrated by Vesper Stamper
Lovely pink and green illustrations and an incredible narrative biography capture the life of the talented Jane Austen. Jane grew up in a supportive family that encouraged reading and writing. She wrote prolifically while she was young but stopped writing after significant life challenges including loss, death, worry, and loneliness. After years passed, she realized that all her troubles gave her new wisdom. Passion renewed Jane rewrote old stories and crafted new ones with lifelike characters. Her writing voice was authentic and unique, leading to her success and longevity.
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Above the Rim How Elgin Baylor Changed Basketball
by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Frank Morrison
Elgin grew up during segregation which dictated where he was allowed to play basketball and attend college and was the top recruit for the NBA when he graduated from college. But even traveling with his basketball team, he was turned away from places because of the color of his skin. Eglin decided to protest the discrimination by sitting out of future basketball games. His activist actions made a difference, too. The NBA put out a statement that they would not give their business to hotels and restaurants that discriminated against Black people. Rich, evocative illustrations and lyrical writing perfectly capture the importance of Eglin’s life and impact.
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For Every Little Thing Poems and Prayers to Celebrate the Day
poems selected by June Cotner and Nancy Tupper Ling, illustrated by Helen Cann
I adore this faith-filled book of gratitude filled with prayers, poems, and blessings written by new and familiar writers. The poems begin in the morning then move towards the night with blessings, kindness, the world, family, and friends in between. These are poems that you’ll cherish with sweet reminders about the simple joys of daily life and our connection to God.
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best nonfiction 2021
XO, Exoplanet
by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Jorge Lacera
Get ready to laugh at this hysterical story with a poignant message about seeing multiple perspectives! When our solar system’s planets write a friendly letter to an exoplanet, their communication turns into a funny argument when the exoplanet tells our planets that THEY are actually the exoplanets. A visiting comet helps our planets to see that depending on how you’re looking at things, both arguments could be true. Letters, dialogue bubbles, and expressive illustrations capture the planets’ strong emotions.
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Survivor Tree
by Marcie Collen, illustrated by Aaron Becker
One September day, the sky exploded, and under the ruble lay a crushed tree. Workers moved the tree with a few green leaves to fresh soil and added two stones representing two towers. It grew in its new home until one day, it was moved back where it started which had changed to host two remembering pools of water. “Today, the tree rises steel-straight and proud, beside the footprints of the towers that once filled its sky. Silently making the seasons, blazing with a million red hearts in the fall.Poignant and hopeful, this is a gentle, lyrical story that alludes to the events of 9/11 and fills readers with emotions as they see the healing and growth afterward. (And, if you’re like me, this story will probably make you cry.)
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The Elephants Come Home: A True Story of Seven Elephants, Two People, and One Extraordinary Friendship
by Kim Tomsic, illustrated by Hadley Hooper
A heartfelt story about the bond between two humans and a herd of elephants… Francoise and Lawrence are a kind couple who invite a herd of angry elephants to live on their wildlife preserve. Lawrence knows that the elephants feel scared. He is so devoted to gaining their trust that he camps near them and tells them stories at night. Soon the elephants are happy and trusting and Lawrence allows them to explore the entirety of Thula Thula. The herd settles about 12 hours away, visiting the couple every few years. Their special connection is never more evident than when Lawrence dies. The entire herd walks and walks to the house, keeping Francoise company and they return every year on the anniversary of Lawrence’s death.
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Strange Nature: The Insect Portraits of Levon Biss
by Gregory Mone, photographs by Levon Biss
Stunning photographs labeled with information about cool insects like the tiger beetle, mantis-fly, and the Orchid Cuckoo Bee accompany kid-friendly informational writing with the perfect amount of text to keep readers learning and engaged. Read where each insect lives, its size, and the most important information about the insect. You’ll love this beautiful bug book because both the photos and the writing are AMAZING.
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A Brief History of Underpants
by Christine Van Zandt, illustrated by Harry Briggs
It’s true– even people in ancient times wore underwear! Whether it was an Inuit in caribou skin underwear or Egyptian loincloths or quilted, padded underpants of European knights, kids will read all about the history of underwear, inventions like the sewing machine that changed the world of underwear, and plenty of fun facts about underpants! Well-written with punny humor, facts, and comic illustrations, this little nonfiction book for young readers is a delight! (Here’s a joke from the back of the book… Q: Why does a pirate wear underpants? A: To hide his booty.)
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Rule the Music Scene Like Queen Beyonce Knowles
by Caroline Moss, illustrated by Sinem Erkas
You’ll zip through this impressive biography with information, history, conversation, and short chapters all accompanied by cool graphic illustrations. You don’t have to be a Beyonce fan to enjoy this biography because it’s so well-written and appealing.
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Wild Outside Around the World with Survivorman
by Les Stroud illustrations by Andres P. Barr
Les Stroud recounts exciting personal adventure stories of exploration and survival in all sorts of places around the world. Fascinating stories are accompanied by photos, illustrations, maps, and informational insets. I couldn’t put this book down and HIGHLY recommend it.
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A Day in the Life of a Poo, a Gnu, and You A Laugh Out Loud Guide to Life on Earth
by Mike Barfield and Jess Bradley
What child doesn’t like to read comics? Learn a lot about many things in this book of comics, diagrams, and secret diaries that explain topics like body parts, animals, and plants using cartoon panels and first-person narration mixed with “bigger picture” expository information. For example, read “A day in the life of” things like the eye, heart, a bee, anglerfish, and a toadstool. Or read “The secret diary” of a tornado.
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best nonfiction 2021
How to Go Anywhere (And Not Get Lost): A Guide to Navigation for Young Adventurers
by Hans Aschim, illustrated by Andres Lozano
FANTASTIC! Engaging informational writing guides readers through the history of navigation to the development of more precision, new technology, and better maps. Illustrated activities throughout the book will help readers apply their new knowledge. for example, “Make Your Own Stick Chart” helps you make an ancient system of mapping the ocean and “Visualizing Declination” shows you the difference magnetic declination can make. Use this all year long in your homeschool or science classroom or throughout the summer as you spend time in nature.
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Legacy: Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance by Nikki Grimes
Stunning artwork and profoundly powerful poems share meaningful musings and lessons about being a girl turning into a woman, being Black, nature, and identity–among other topics. Grimes shares poems from Harlem Renaissance writers then uses them to write her own The Golden Shovel poems, using words from the original poems in her new poems, each line ending with one of the words from the original poem. I’ve read and reread these poems more than once and am always finding new things to love — one of which is just the masterful use of language to convey meaning and spark wonder. For children 10 and up.
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Stolen Science: Thirteen Untold Stories of Scientists and Inventors ALmost Written out of History
by Ella Schwartz, illustrated by Gaby D’Alessandro
Engrossing lightly illustrated biographies share the lives of passionate scientists who made big discoveries yet didn’t receive credit for one reason or the other. After you read about each scientist, learn information about the science they discovered or related information about it. The writing is engaging enough that you’ll find all of the stories mesmerizing.
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The Ultimate Art Museum
by Ferren Gipson
WOW — this is the MOST impressive, well-organized, and beautifully designed art history book for children that I’ve EVER read. It’s a curated book that takes children chronologically through 18 galleries from geographical regions and cultures such as the Far East, Ancient Egypt, Medieval Europe, and Byzantine period. Colorful borders and design, photographs and paintings with descriptions. Gorgeous — I highly recommend this incredible book!
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Mightier Than the Sword: Rebels, Reformers & Revolutionaries Who Changed the World Through Writing
by Rochelle Melander, illustrated by Melina Ontiveros
Incredible writing showcases the inspiring stories of individuals throughout history and across cultures who have used their writing to change the world! The first biography is about Murasaki Shikibu, a Japanese novelist who lived around the first century, who wasn’t supposed to learn Chinese writing but who did anyway–and wrote an impactful and famous novel called The Tale of Genji. The biographies continue by featuring 39 more writers who made a difference like Abu Abdullah Muhammad, Frederick Douglass, Qiu Jin, James Baldwin, Octavia Bulter, and Sophie Cruz. Each biography is illustrated and includes a quote from the person, a section to give background or context, and a section asking how you could apply the ideas in your own writing. Back matter includes advice for revising and writing.
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Courageous Creatures and the Humans Who Help Them I Survived True Stories
by Lauren Tarshis
Superb! Four compelling stories of animals and humans will keep readers engaged. From carrier pigeon hero of WW I to cheetah cubs adopted by a human, these will share true stories for any animal lover. Filled with lots of black and white photographs and factual information that supports each story. For example, read about echolocation related to the dolphin story and general information about marine animals. Highly recommended.
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best nonfiction 2021
Unforgotten The Wild Life of Dian Fossey and Her Relentless Quest to Save Mountain Gorillas
by Anita Silvey
Learn how Dian found her passion for primates and worked hard to get to Africa to study with Louis Leakey and Jane Goodall, then settling in the congo to study mountain gorillas. It wasn’t easy — she was even captured by the military. As you read about her life and her passion for mountain gorillas, you’ll also learn from the informational section about gorilla species, the landscape around her, and Gorillas that became well known to Dian. The writing is superb — you’ll be so fascinated that you won’t be able to put it down. Full-color photographs grace every page — this book is stunning!
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Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright: An Animal Poem for Each Day of the Year
by Fiona Waters, illustrated by Britta Teckentrup
This is a hefty and impressive book of kid-friendly poetry with earthy illustrations and poems for each day of the year about animals of all kinds!
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