Finding good nonfiction books for children under five is a tricky business. Granted, there are a lot of DK Publishing “visual guides” to different subjects and, when you weed out the glorified sticker books, some of them are pretty good. (We’re particularly fond of an “Oceans” book we picked up at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium.) I’m a big believer in having lots of big, picture-filled reference works or coffee table books lying around the house, just waiting for a kid to start flipping through them. Provided that the subject matter is appropriate – “The Visual Guide to Nazi Panzer Tanks” or “Autopsies in Detroit: A History” should probably be kept on higher shelves – I think those over-sized, glossy photo books act as a really alluring windows out into the world for little kids – even though, for the most part, the text from those photo books is going to be completely lost on them, thanks to both its reading level and often miniscule font size.

Never Smile at a Monkey by Steve Jenkins

Never Smile at a Monkey by Steve Jenkins

Even the DK books are fairly hard to read. They’re great to browse or to search for a specific fact, but the text can be small and dense and, for a first grade or younger child, who is more used to the traditional picture book reading experience, trying to sit down and read what is, ostensibly, a reference book is going to be next to impossible. (Trust me, I make reference books for a living. They’re not made to be read in one sitting.)

So it’s rare (in my limited experience) to find nonfiction works that can actually appeal to young readers in the same way as a traditional picture book, and that’s why I hold Steve Jenkins in such high regard. Jenkins is an artist and author who makes the coolest science books for kids you’ve ever seen. It’s probably not even accurate to call them simply “science books.” Jenkins is, first and foremost, a hell of an artist, and he creates these intricately rad paper collages to illustrate the wonders of the natural world. He’s an artist-biologist, but his picture books also have this very specific and very kid-focused way that he presents his facts, which makes them perfect for young readers.

His nature books don’t read like encyclopedias – they read like books, really engaging picture books, and you can tell from even just his titles that he knows how to hook in young readers. His books include such titles as What Do You Do When Something Wants To Eat You?; What Do You Do with a Tail Like This?; How Many Ways Can You Catch a Fly?; and Biggest, Strongest, Fastest; to name a few. Our favorite Jenkins’ book is the amazingly-titled Never Smile at a Monkey: And 17 Other Important Things to Remember, and it’s a staple in our home library. [read the rest of the post…]