A child’s love of reading starts with picture books. And while there are hundreds of great bedtime stories to choose from (see: our definitive list of the all-time greatest picture books), finding picture books that successfully put abstract subjects like physics, engineering, math, ecology, and biology within the grasp of younger readers can be trickier.
Some nonfiction picture books offer a kind of science-y escapism, while others offer plenty of facts without much story. Striking a balance between the two is essential for young kids, as they explore how things work in the much larger world around them, from the tiniest microbes to the theoretical scope of the cosmos itself. The right nonfiction picture books can also shore up concepts that are being introduced at school and help kids make new connections between ideas.
With that in mind, we’ve rounded up 12 excellent nonfiction picture books that are perfect for getting kids excited for back-to-school. These focus on books for grade-school-aged kids and cover everything from microbiology and geology to the entire history of NASA’s moon shot.
By Jennifer Berne; Illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky
With warmth and humor, this beautifully illustrated biography makes a figure as towering as physicist Albert Einstein seem like a friendly companion. Kids will innately understand and identify with Einstein’s deep curiosity, rich imagination, and endless questions. How can sugar dissolve and disappear in a cup of hot tea? How does smoke from a pipe vanish into thin air? Parents will appreciate the opportunity to introduce such weighty concepts as magnetism, gravity, light, sound, atoms, time, and space with a rare lightness of touch and an easy sense of wonder.
By Kate Messner. Illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal
Simple and lyrical, this serene ode to nature reminds us how much is there to see if we slow down and take the time to look. Safely cocooned in life jackets, a young boy and his mother glide in a canoe over quicksilver minnows, lurking brook trout, paddle-tailed beavers, and past a moose munching water lilies and a woodpecker hammering away at a pine tree for ants. This glimpse into the secret world of a pond celebrates powers of quiet observation and attention to detail, and readers will feel a little sorry at the final “swoosh-bump” as the canoe returns to shore at the end.
By Josef Antòn; Illustrated by Lucie Brunellière
There’s no shortage of seek-and-find books out there for pre-readers, but few do their job as joyfully as this one. Children will be spellbound as they follow a submarine through a rich, bright undersea world in search of creatures, from a swirling silver ball of mackerel to a whaleshark whose dappled back is illuminated by slanting beams of light. It’s a world of perpetual motion that will hold even the wriggliest kid rapt.
By Nicola Davies; Illustrated by Emily Sutton
It’s exciting and satisfying to master a tricky concept about how the world works — especially before the age of 8. This excellent introduction to an invisible but instrumental part of our world will make even the youngest child a proud expert on microbes. The appealing watercolor illustrations enable children to visualize both the scale of these tiny organisms — millions could fit on an ant’s antennae — as well as the invisible biological processes they perform, from giving us runny noses to helping create the soil beneath our feet to shaping the clouds above our heads.
By Laura Knowles; Illustrated by Jennie Webber
A seed grows into a tree — the lesson is simple. But the journey from the humble winged seed that pinwheels down on the first page to the rich world of the vast old tree it has transformed into by the last is nothing short of miraculous. Children will love the glimpse into the secret dark tunnels beneath the roots, home to soft-eared rabbits, and into the dense life hosted in the branches above — dragonflies, deer, birds, squirrels, foxes. In the end, new seeds drift off to continue the cycle. It’s a particularly patient and lovely explanation of nature, and the truth that something so small can grow into something so big and complex will resonate with parents whose children still fit on their laps.
By John Rocco
Lavishly illustrated, this book takes kids on a step-by-step journey that delivers on its title. This is the full story of how Apollo 11 landed on the moon, and all the behind-the-scenes innovation that led to it. While this is a picture book, it's a hefty one, and Rocco’s research doesn’t shy away from complicated ideas or facts. But, ultimately, this book teaches kids the who, the what, the when and the why of the moon landing. The triumph of science and courage is still inspiring, and as plans for a return trip to the moon are back in the news, there’s never a better time for this wonderful history book.
By Conrad Mason
Science-based books with great, detailed illustrations are good. But, arguably, science-based books that also have a lot of flaps to lift are better. This lift-the-flap “How Things Work” covers everything from flight to water, to wonderful descriptions of how elevators work. Perhaps the best section is a page called “simple machines,” in which children learn all about wheels and fulcrums, and how the basics of gravity are subverted by the inventions we use. A book that will encourage constant rereading and fuel an inquisitive mind, even parents and teachers will find themselves learning and relearning the wonders of innovation and invention.
By Elisha Cooper
Alphabet books abound, but few feature such appealingly whimsical illustrations or such an impressive range of animals — the letter “A” alone features an aardvark, abalone, albatross, alligator, alpaca, ant, anteater, antelope, and armadillo! Identifying every letter’s creature will make both kids and their parents feel clever. Younger kids will get practice counting, too: one of each of the animals is featured eight times on each page.
By Brian Floca
The brilliant Brian Floca has a rare ability to show how “things” (cities, rockets, locomotives, ships) intersect with our lives in meaningful and history-making ways — which, arguably, is where all the really important information lies for kids and parents alike. The stunning illustrations and attention to detail that made Floca’s previous books, such as Moonshot and Lightship, so remarkable, is also abundant in his 2020 love letter to New York City, Keeping the City Going. Written during the lockdowns of 2020, Floca captures the spirit of not just New York City, but every city and community that went through hard times, just a few short years ago, highlighting the bravery of the essential workers who kept all or our communities running.
By Julia Rothman
You can find Julia Rothman’s unmistakable illustrations everywhere from subway posters to tableware — she’s also the author, editor and illustrator of more than a dozen nonfiction picture books that make big, complex systems (everything from the life in the ocean to life on a working farm), accessible and fascinating for all ages (including adults). The Julia Rothman Collection, featuring Food, Farm and Nature, is a great place to start — and encourages even the youngest readers to start making connections between the wilderness and cultivation and the food we eat. (As a bonus, this set includes 10 framable posters.)
Are your kids feeling skittish about math? This may be one of the greatest books to make math fun and exciting ever. Sure to be a classic, this 2022 book is a must-have for kids of all ages. Artist and author David Macaulay is one of the greatest explainer-illuminators of all time — he’s been been bringing tricky subjects, from ancient architecture to cutting-edge technology, to young readers for more than 40 years, in award-winning illustrated books like Castle, City, Pyramid, and Underground. (His beloved compendium The Way Things Work was reissued in a revised edition in May.) Macaulay has a nearly unequalled talent for making complex ideas beautifully simple.
Caldecott-medalist Jason Chin has a rare gift for merging great storytelling with scientific facts — whether he’s focused on the microscopic universe within the human body or our place in the cosmos, Chin makes the unimaginably huge (or tiny) feel close and connected to our lives. His immersive illustrations mean kids can launch “solo” expeditions into everything from coral reefs to redwoods to the Grand Canyon just by getting happily lost in his books. Grand Canyon is both a father-daughter journey full of discovery, and an incredible introduction to the flora, fauna and geology of the Grand Canyon that will keep kids engaged for hours.