Depictions of Time

It is common to find timelines in children’s nonfiction picture books in the content or in back matter. Usually time is shown as a continuum, and the choices are made between the shape: whether it is straight (horizontal or vertical), curved or even entirely round.

Timeline is often read as a timeline even though there would not be a visible line at all. Dates, years or other measures of time happening one after (or next to) another reads as a timeline.

Let the Children March by Monica Clark-Robinson & Frank Morrison (Illustrator), 2018

Signs as a timeline suits well the theme of this book. The timeline continues in the endsheets on the back, telling what happened after the children’s march.

Kaleidoscope of Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Life – Their Colors and Patterns Explained by Greer Stothers (Author & Illustrator), 2022

Round timeline like this sometimes suit the spread of a picture book better than a straight line from left to right. In a book shaped like this (portrait) a round timeline fills the spread more evenly than a horizontal line. Interestingly, this runs counterclockwise.

Rescuing Titanic: A true story of quiet bravery in the North Atlantic by Flora Delargy (Author & Illustrator), 2021

Time can be shown in a very daily life kind of way, too: In Rescuing Titanic the reader is kept up to date with time and pace of events by watches (different ones on Titanic and Carpathia) showing the time on nearly every spread. The picture book is very suspenseful, and staying up to date on whether there is hope for Titanic or not (even though you should know…) makes you look at the time in the watches closely!

Chickenology – The Ultimate Encyclopaedia by Barbara Sandri, Francesco Giubbilini & Camilla Pintonato (Illustrator), 2021

This round, fun and surprising egg visualization is structured on the basis of time: starting from poached egg on the left (3min.) and proceeding clockwise to 150° egg (30min.).

Looking at structures

Can a timeline or other depiction of time be the main structural factor of a picture book? Certainly. A lot of narrative nonfiction follows a story arc based on chronology. But to truly use time as a structural element: I have three examples.

Thunderstorm by Arthur Geisert (Author & Illustrator), 2013

Arthur Geisert’s Thunderstorm is one of the best examples of a children’s picture book that is a data visualization. You could call it one wide graph. Graph, where x axis shows time – and y axis tells about the storm in a freedom-filled way! The storm comes, rages and moves forward, away from the pastoral setting we’re viewing. There’s an accordion edition of the book available, the kinship to a graph is even more evident in that version. Thunderstorm is a silent (/wordless) picture book, if the annotations of time in the bottom of some of the pages are not taken into account.

The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown by Mac Barnett & Sarah Jacoby (Illustrator), 2019

The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown tells about children’s book writer Margaret Wise Brown who lived a life of 42 years. The picture book has 42 pages. This structural undertone follows along throughout the picture book and creates tension, and should I say – a very visceral feeling of what you are reading through.

The Next President: The Unexpected Beginnings and Unwritten Future of America’s Presidents by Kate Messner & Adam Rex (Illustrator), 2020

The Next President is structured around four years: 1789, 1841, 1897 and 1961. The spreads show what presidents alive that year were doing, and of course how old they were. The book’s view on time is thought-provoking: “At least ten of our future presidents are probably alive today.” is how it ends. The future is wide open!

Depictions of Time are the third 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 mostly originated; with few exceptions), especially in the years 2021-22. For more information on the project and on the books I have explored read here.

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Author: Pirita Tolvanen

Illustrator. Loves illustrating data, non-fiction picture books and swimming.

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