11 Nonfiction Titles to Use Across the Curriculum

We’ve been saying it for years–teaching reading isn’t just the job of English teachers.  In an ideal world, it is a nationwide cultural endeavor to produce a literate citizenry who is both able to decode words and passionate about responding to their meanings.

The Common Core, for all its flaws, attempts to get students there–the standards say that kids should be reading 50% nonfiction altogether (that’s not just in English class; it’s across the curriculum).  In that vein, here are 11 nonfiction titles that could be used across the curriculum–or booktalked by any teacher in an English class.


The Double Helix, a fascinating biography by one of the discoverers of DNA, hooks me every time by bringing the textbook personas of Watson himself and his partner Francis Crick to life.  Many of my students interested in a career in the biological sciences were hooked by this text immediately.

Being Mortal forces the reader to ask some tough questions–should I really prolong my life as much as medicine enables me to, through decades of pain and suffering?  Or does that run counter to the human spirit?  Gawande uses all of his knowledge as a practicing surgeon to get the reader to question the industry that is medicine.

Into Thin Air, an oldie but a goodie, is Jon Krakauer’s harrowing first-person account of the deadliest season on Mt. Everest in history.  Its early promise that most of its characters would soon be dead grabs my students’ attention every time.

A Short History of Nearly Everything, aka the longest but most interesting book about science ever, explains everything I never understood about the subject from The Big Bang to the possibility of someday colonizing Mars.  Students are always wildly impressed when I flip through the list of Bryson’s references in the back.

Social Studies

Hiroshima is John Hersey’s unflinching masterwork, a journalistic symphony of six survivors’ stories of the dropping of the first atomic bomb.  It is powerful and devastating and horrifying and beautiful all at once, and just reading the first page aloud to students gets them wide-eyed and entranced right away.

henrylouisgatesjr1Colored People, Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s biography of growing up black in rural West Virginia during the Civil Rights movement.  It’s a book that hooks my students because of its ties to our home state, but it’s universally appealing in that Gates creates a colorful cast of characters early on in the book, most of whom he defies in order to graduate summa cum laude from Yale University.

To Sell is Human is a favorite for students in Psychology class as it brings the social sciences to life in a very Malcolm Gladwell-esque way–short stories and then quick aphorisms make complex ideas simple to digest in this quick, fascinating read by Daniel Pink.


137717Will in the World, written by everyone’s favorite long-winded Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt, brings William Shakespeare to life in this detailed biography of both the playwright and his Elizabethan London.  I love reading this book as a shameless English nerd and London-lover, but my students love it because it’s a classic tale of an average guy succeeding against all odds.

The Mother Tongue, the second book by the excellent Bill Bryson on this list, is a glorious history of the English language.  My students especially adore the chapter on swear words.


imgresMoneyball, one of Michael Lewis’ earliest books, hooks students often because it has a great movie adaptation to accompany it.  But when you sit down with the book itself, it blends both narrative and statistics, the least “mathy” part of math that I can understand.

The Hot Zone, a terrifying account of the origins of the Ebola virus, will give you actual nightmares if the ideas of biological warfare or global pandemics freak you out.  It’s a very detailed narrative of the virus’ structure, symptoms, and Hail Mary-type treatments that “proves that truth really is scarier than fiction.” (Tell that to Stephen King.)

What titles do you use to introduce your students to subjects across the curriculum? Please share in the comments!



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