Expanding Your School’s Nonfiction Collection

Elementary through high school students are eager for nonfiction. Here’s how to find the books they’ll want to read.

June 23, 2023
Tim Bouckley / Ikon Images

Do you have a sufficient number of nonfiction books in your classroom or school library to meet the reading needs of students? There’s an increasing amount of evidence that students not only enjoy nonfiction but are actively seeking it. There’s also some indication that elementary students in particular may prefer nonfiction material by a wide margin, compared with adults. Yet, classroom collections and school libraries often don’t reflect this reality.

As more data emerges showing that students struggle to grasp civics and history, and continue to fall victim to misinformation, reading nonfiction has become increasingly important. What’s more, enhanced content and background knowledge is being linked to literacy and reading comprehension. In light of these and other facts, the National Council of Teachers of English states, “In the urgency of this moment, nonfiction for young people has never been more vibrant or vital.”

Here are some measures to expand the nonfiction collection in your classroom or school library. 

a nonfiction audit

The first task is to take stock of how many nonfiction books are in your own collection. Then, work with the school librarian to assess the number of nonfiction works in the school library, using the library management system. Many library software programs offer users the ability to see a given collection’s ratio of fiction to nonfiction. Identify the grades for which books are intended, as well as the reading levels of texts that pertain to your or your department’s curriculum.

Then determine what nonfiction books you may need. If you’re a classroom teacher, review your or your department’s curriculum. This might necessitate one or more conversations with your fellow teachers. Is there subject matter that provides a good opportunity for nonfiction reading? If you’re a social studies teacher, topics such as World War II, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights Movement are relevant subjects for nonfiction books. 

Nonfiction readings need not be relegated to the humanities or social studies classrooms. There are plenty of good nonfiction books, including young adult (YA) nonfiction, pertaining to the sciences (e.g., editions of Sam Kean or Mary Roach).

Must-have topics

Students have a variety of interests, of course, but there are several topics to which young people tend to gravitate: war, survival, popular history, popular science, poetry, and true crime, the latter becoming increasingly popular in the wake of documentaries and podcasts on the subject matter. 

For example, my students have enjoyed Blood, Bullets, and Bones: The Story of Forensic Science from Sherlock Holmes to DNA, by Bridget Heos, and Murder Among Friends: How Leopold and Loeb Tried to Commit the Perfect Crime, by Candace Fleming. Another popular nonfiction author is Steve Sheinkin

While there’s a growing body of YA nonfiction (check out this comprehensive 2019 list for more suggestions), it’s still a comparatively small field. Adult nonfiction can sometimes be too long for a school or require more patience than a student has, but don’t dismiss adult nonfiction texts. If a student knows how to use a book for research, they don’t need to read the entire text. With this in mind, adult nonfiction, by authors Jon Krakauer, Erik Larson, and Neal Bascomb (who has books for both adults and younger readers), for example, can be a good tool for students, especially in high-level secondary education. 

research vs. pleasure

When analyzing new nonfiction offerings, I consider what could be used for research and what could be more for pleasure reading. Authors of research-oriented books typically use quantitative and qualitative measures to study a topic, phenomenon, place, or individual in a sophisticated manner.

On the other hand, popular nonfiction is often faster paced. The authors purposely write for a general audience. The style is usually more accessible and engaging. Narrative nonfiction, in particular, often tells a story with character arcs, action, and plots that mirror those of fiction.

Both kinds of books have a place in nonfiction collections. Some books will pertain more to students writing papers. Other books might be something that students read for personal enjoyment. Still others straddle the line. 

Some additional resources

For school librarians looking to expand their library’s nonfiction collections, get to know the different departments’ curricula, request lesson plans and syllabi, push into classrooms to discuss teacher and student research needs, ask to join in on department meetings, and talk to students about their interests. These are all ways to better understand what material you may need to purchase.

For teachers and school librarians, review the relevant literature and journals for new nonfiction topics. Check out School Library Journal, which always has helpful recommendations for age-appropriate nonfiction books. Reach out to other schools, libraries, and librarians and develop professional relationships. In my area, there’s a group of school librarians who meet twice a year. Your region might have something similar. 

Consider visiting the websites of the Chicago Public Library, the New York Public Library, and other major libraries. You can also review prominent award winners on various American Library Association sites, such as the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults.

Use social media to ask about nonfiction selections. There are plenty of teachers and school librarians online who would happily answer questions. Joining a professional learning network on social media can be a positive step for those looking to add new texts to classroom or library collections.

Many of my students, for example, get most of their book recommendations from BookTok, TikTok’s popular literary subcommunity where creators discuss and review books. If you don’t want to join TikTok, there are websites such as Books-A-Million that showcase the most popular BookTok titles. You can even search for the most popular books on BookTok using Google, and a list will come up. 

If all else fails, visit a bookstore and see what displays it has for young adults. However you choose your books, consider the following advice. 

  • Be responsive: Choose books that speak to subjects that you or your department’s curriculum cover.
  • Be anticipatory: There are many good nonfiction books that might interest students. Find highly rated nonfiction that might speak to students’ interests. For example, you may wish to buy nonfiction books about sports, athletes, or exercise science if you have many athletes in your classroom. Getting to know your students will help you choose the appropriate materials.

In any case, it’s wise to share what you’re planning to purchase with your administration or school board, since more and more schools have policies on subject matter. With this in mind, transparency is always the best bet.

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