(Updated 1/29/13 to reflect recent awards!)

Informational books (aka “nonfiction”) are getting lots of buzz these days. Why? The new Common Core State Standards for public schools stipulate that children read more informational text across the curriculum (50% in kindergarten, up to 55% in middle school, and up to 70% by graduation). That doesn’t mean literature classes are tossing poetry, novels, and short stories; it does mean, however, that more reading in more informational sources than a basic textbook are now highly encouraged throughout the school day–in all subjects.
Charlotte Mason would be delighted. Not a fan of textbooks, she urged her followers to use living books to teach concepts and history. Now, that’s more within reach than ever! Publishers and authors have been producing some remarkable information works in recent years; with the new CCSS, this trend is likely to continue. 
Here are three titles published this past year (2012) that are fascinating reads, quite educational, well written, and which encourage the reader to think critically about the material at hand. That’s a winning formula in my book! And, since the ALA Youth Media Awards (think: Newbery, Caldecott, etc.) get announced tomorrow, I’m hoping to see at least one of these win something!!
Bomb: the Race to Build—and Steal–the World’s Most Powerful Weapon
Steve Sheinkin
Roaring Book Press, 2012.
2013 Newbery Honor, Sibert Medal Winner, and YALSA Best Nonfiction title
Bomb chronicles the race to build (and steal) the first atomic bomb. Giving us insight into the US’s fears of Germany’s progression in their own atomic weapons program, the drive for scientists like Robert Oppenheimer to get that bomb up and running FAST, the KGB’s ruthless insistence that their spies unearth the US’s bomb secrets, and the entire WWII stage—Bombis a gripping read. For those who enjoy political thrillers, scientific history and information, and a terrific peak inside a time fraught with uncertainty and tough decisions, Bomb is the book for you. Readers will come away with a better understanding of the time period in question, the behind-the-scenes events and decisions at play, and a recognition that all decisions, especially in wartime, carry significant weight; even when someone thinks he or she is making the “right” decision, that doesn’t mean the decision is easy or will have good consequences.  I also found myself thinking repeatedly: I am so NOT brave compared to these guys. Man. Recommended for 5th grade and up.
The Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure
Jim Murphy, Alison Bank
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
Who would have thought a book about tuberculosis would be good–even riveting? Not me. But I could not put this book down, and when I closed the book… I was looking around for a face mask. TB is still out there…lurking…and defying our latest scientific cures. Thank goodness, our latest scientific cures are in the realm of antibiotics instead of collapsed lungs and enforced trips to sanatoriums located far away from family and friends. Filled with photographs, startling statistics and historic “cures,” and bringing us right up into the present day, The Invincible Microbe is a great read, especially for those who enjoy medical history, science, or just plain weird stuff. Recommended for 5thgrade and up.
A Black Hole is Not a Hole
Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano, author
Michael Carroll, illustrator
Charlesbridge Publishing, 2012
2013 Orbis Pictus NCTE Recommended Book
Most of us have some vague idea of what a black hole is, right? No matter what you think you know, this book will fascinate you. Space is just, so, well, … huge. There’s so much we don’t know, and the author is quick to point out that many of what she is telling us is the latest scientific conjecture. Photographs, artistic renderings, great charts/graphs showing comparisons to readily knowable facts (so many space-related measurements are too mind boggling for us to grasp), A Black Hole is Not a Hole is readily accessible to anyone with a modicum of basic earth science background. Explanations are student-friendly, and, while there are references to billions of years, there is remarkably little overt reference to things “evolving.” My conservative readers will still enjoy this read. Recommended for 4th grade and up.