Pairing Nonfiction Books & Web Sites

Book Links Jan. 2009 (vol. 18, no. 3)

By Jessica Mangelson and Jill Castek

Students of all ages enjoy delving into informational books and online resources to learn about topics such as science, history, and social studies. Providing extended opportunities for students to read nonfiction nurtures their curiosity about the world around them, increases their reading engagement, and supports their flexibility with comprehension strategies such as making inferences, asking questions, and establishing connections. Research suggests that the skillful application of these strategies can improve overall academic achievement when applied across a wide variety of reading contexts.

Literacy experiences organized around reading and discussing books are a necessary foundation for our students. In today’s information-centered world, however, online reading and information gathering has become an integral part of literacy learning as well. Integrating the Internet with books encourages readers to actively use online resources and discussion platforms to expand ideas, make intertextual connections, and collaborate with others to enhance learning.

In this column, we offer suggestions for pairing nonfiction titles and Web sites. Reading the books introduced in this piece and exploring the accompanying high-quality Web sites enhances content learning and reading comprehension. In the examples we describe, the online resources can be used before reading to provide a backdrop for activating background knowledge or explored after reading as an extension that supports the interpretation of information found in books. Both approaches give multiple options for delving deeper into a topic. We’ve selected the following 2008 Orbis Pictus titles as the focus of these pairings. Administered by the National Council of Teachers of English, the Orbis Pictus Award recognizes excellence in nonfiction, and the books below provide rich learning opportunities for students in grades 2–8.

World War II

Black and White Airmen: Their True History, John Fleischman chronicles the life of two World War II aviators, Herb Heilbrun, a Caucasian, and John Leahr, an African American. These men had unknowingly shared many of the same experiences, even attending the same third-grade class. Fifty years after the war, they met and connected the dots to their remarkably similar pasts. Fleischman masterfully paints a picture of John and Herb’s lives while presenting details about World War II aircraft and remarkable war stories. Woven into the text are issues of social change, racial inequality, and discrimination that are sure to spark discussion among students.

To introduce this topic and gain students’ attention before reading, visit the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Web site “
Black Wings: African American Pioneer Aviators.” This site contains information, images, and commentary that shed light on how African Americans overcame challenges to enter the field of aviation. The reading and writing activities (including Web Quests) for students in grades 5–12 make great after-reading extensions.

The Arctic

The Snow Baby: The Arctic Childhood of Admiral Robert E. Peary’s Daring Daughter by Katherine Kirkpatrick chronicles the colorful life of Marie Ahnighito Peary. This engaging photo-essay relates events in Peary’s life in the North, including avalanches, blizzards, and a frightening shipwreck. A unit on Inuit culture or Arctic habitats could easily be built around this amazing book.

An online resource that pairs well with
The Snow Baby comes from the Canadian Museum of Nature. “
Ukaliq: The Arctic Hare” is an interactive Web site with a downloadable memory game and art project along with a host of links to a wide variety of resources, including templates and lesson plans. These resources can be used to scaffold students’ research into animals indigenous to the Arctic.

Explore “Inuit Activities” from Wilder Elementary School in Grand Forks, North Dakota, to see how one fifth-grade class extended what they learned in a study of Alaska through art, games, and other activities. The photos will spark a number of creative ideas.

Finally, the Canadian Teachers’ Centre, part of the Virtual Museum of Canada, hosts a
Web site that features quality links to many useful resources, including worksheets, information guides, and lessons designed to help students understand and appreciate Inuit culture.

Snakes and More

Venom by Marilyn Singer introduces a cross section of venomous animals, from spiders to sea creatures. The photos are captivating and the information is engrossing. Along with the detailed descriptions of creatures, the author shares the ways that scientists use venom for medical purposes. Readers will gain a greater respect for the role these dangerous animals play in helping humans.

The Web site of Science News for Kids features an article called “
Delivering a Little Snake Venom” that relates a firsthand experience with a poisonous snake called a bushmaster. The Web site includes links to related stories, a snake word find, and a list of recommended science books.

The World Almanac for Kids Web site features “
Danger! Poisonous Animals” that explains the difference between poisonous and venomous animals using lots of student-friendly examples. This resource has a built-in search feature that allows students to find related reading material as well as a link to other fun facts.

Helen Keller

Helen Keller: Her Life in Pictures, George Sullivan recounts the struggles and challenges Keller faced through words and photos. This beautiful photo-biography gives readers a greater understanding of who Keller was and how she achieved so much during her life.

An excellent resource for learning more about this famous historical figure is “
Braille Bug,” the children’s section of the American Foundation for the Blind Web Site. Packed with information, activities, and resources, this site is appropriate for students in grades 2–6. Pages on Braille, Helen Keller, a reading club for children who read Braille, and much more may be found here. Don’t miss the trivia and biographies about other notable people who have made a difference for the blind.


Besides the Orbis Pictus titles in this article, we wanted to highlight one other favorite nonfiction selection.
Once a Wolf: How Wildlife Biologists Fought to Bring Back the Gray Wolf by Stephen R. Swinburne is an intimate photo-essay of the lives of wolves that integrates information about the ways in which people see them and how the folklore surrounding wolves has hurt their population.

Pair this book with the
children’s section of Yellowstone National Park’s Web site, which is full of information for students of all ages. Teachers will find printable alphabet books, coloring sheets, and pictures for younger students, while older children will appreciate the Web scavenger hunt, wolf trivia game, and puzzles. In addition to games and activities, beautiful photos of wolves are included in “
Yellowstone Digital Slide File—Wolf.” “
The Windows into Wonderland Electronic Field Trip” also featured on this site chronicles a wolf’s life in Yellowstone.

To provide another layer of extension activities, visit
PBS Nova Online, where students can hear a wolf howl, see amazing up-close pictures, and learn more about the similarities and differences between wolves and domestic dogs.

Defenders of Wildlife’s “
World Wide Wolves” Web site features interactive maps, tables, and graphs showing the estimated population of wolves around the world and their current state of endangerment. Students can visit links to “Read the Report” and “Get All the Facts” before answering the Web Quest questions provided.

Pairing nonfiction books and Web sites capitalizes on students’ interest in engaging topics, sparks their curiosity, and provides extended reading experiences. In the process, students improve their literacy skills, increase their content knowledge, and acquire essential strategies for navigating and comprehending online information.

Jessica Mangelson has worked as an elementary-school teacher, reading specialist, and professor of reading education.
Jill Castek is a literacy specialist with the Seeds of Science/Roots of Reading project at UC Berkeley.