“…many twentieth-century children’s books teach the idea of list-making. What is Goodnight Moon but a catalogue of things: a list of properties both real and fanciful that mark the progress of evening and the passageway to sleep?”
━ Seth Lerer: Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter
Presentations of data that exhibit classification of some sort are common in children’s nonfiction picture books. It is usual to see these especially with animals and plants – based on scientific taxonomies, that are hierarchical.
Below a book spread introducing four different parasites and showing a couple of their possible hosts, and a book spread introducing a selection of Amazon’s animals and insects based on Percy Fawcett‘s journals.
A tree of life. This is probably the first tree diagram I encounter in a children’s book, with a content well suited for the form.
Looking at structures
“Enumeration, or topical outline, represents the most frequently used organizational pattern for information books. In such works, writers describe their subjects by examining what they believe to be the relevant parts of that whole.”
━ Betty Carter: Reviewing Nonfiction Books for Children and Young Adults: Stance, Scholarship, and Structure
Classification can be a structural element of a picture book. A lot of nonfiction picture books on animals and plants, for example, (like I am the Shark by Joan Holub & Laurie Keller (Illustrator), 2021) follow a structure based on a scientific taxonomy or some other similar order created by the author.
Data scientist, Statistician and Professor Emeritus at Yale University Edward Tufte has prompted data to be ordered substantively or based on performance rather than alphabetically. Alphabetical order should be saved for look-up lists, such as glossaries. I often contemplate this when I encounter children’s picture books based on alphabetical order. They do have to learn it, yes. In some cases perhaps some other structures could be considered, too? There are a lot of them, after all.
A for Activism, B for Ballots, C for country… In An ABC of Democracy the content fits the form well. It is a list of information on democracy that doesn’t have a predefined order, otherwise; it is the author’s view on what democracy consists of.
In most cases the structural order of the book tells more about what the book is trying to communicate than the title. For example Only in America: The Weird and Wonderful 50 States by Heather Alexander & Allan Berry Rhys (Illustrator) might sound at first like a geographical book. But the content, 50 states, is structured alphabetically. If a book on geographical content is structured alphabetically, it’s not geographical info it’s trying to convey. This one focuses on introducing weird laws, quirks, unusual records etc. state-by-state.
With the first category: Illustrated Maps I mention Maps by Aleksandra Mizielińska and Daniel Mizieliński, 2013. The book is structured based on continents, and (hierarchically) countries in them. The countries are ordered from north to south. North-to-south or corresponding structure suits well maps and geographical info. When countries are in an alphabetical order, neighbouring countries might end up far from each other.
The nonfiction picture books by Steve Jenkins (and Steve Jenkins and Robin Page) have come up often during my project, and I have gotten familiar with several of them. I like the combination of the skilled collage illustration style and the illustrations’ information/data-heavy function. This book is focused on different parts of animals: Tails, eyes, mouths, etc. On the first spread they are presented with a question and on the second spread you find the answers.
Water-Land is a unique picture book with its cutouts of either form of water/land. The illustration follows the cutouts along cleverly! As a back matter there’s a map fold-out, with lists of most known forms of water/land around the world. The picture book shows a few different forms, starting from the most obvious and easiest: Lake/island.
Classification is the fourth category I have come up with in my Fulbright project during spring 2022 exploring presentations of data in children’s nonfiction picture books published in the United States (and originated; with a few exceptions), especially in the years 2021-22. For more information on the project and on the books I have explored read here.
Interested in more?