Presentations of Data in Nonfiction Picture Books in the U.S.

I spent spring semester 2022 at the Simmons University’s Center for the study of Children’s Literature in Boston, MA, USA as a Fulbright Scholar. My project topic was data visualization and children’s nonfiction picture books.

I beheld a lot of nonfiction picture books. I read scholarly and historical material about picture books and all kinds and qualities of nonfiction. I interviewed experts on children’s literature and data visualization: people working in publishing and universities, writers and visual artists. I attended events and guest lectures at Simmons University and Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, as well as SCBWI Winter Conference “Creating and Selling Children’s Books in 2022” and 14th IBBY Regional Conference in Nashville, Tennessee.

I wrote an article “Why We Need Data Visualization in Children’s Picture Books, Too” to Fulbright Finland’s blog.

Illustrations and text go together

Text-image interaction was one of my main themes of interest, and the book How Picturebooks Work by Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott was the main source. The visual/verbal interaction is a key component in why I focus on picture books, and it exists in data visualization, too, but is discussed in different terms. I wrote a blog article Illustrations and text go together where I applied five ways of categorizing text-picture interaction presented by Nikolajeva and Scott for my own data visualization work.

What Illustrators do best

Data visualization made by Illustrators differs from data visualization made by Information Designers: they have different audiences. Molly Bang shows in her book Picture This: How Pictures Work how structural elements in a picture affect our emotions. She suggests the emotion to be very clear before the illustrator starts working on a picture – I believe it’s the same with data. Otherwise the intention might get lost or blurry. That is why I would love to see more data visualization made by illustrators – especially when talking of children as the audience. I wrote a blog article about this, titled Picture this: What illustrators do best.

Lessons in structures

Can a picture book be a data visualization? has been a core question in the whole project. I have encountered examples, but getting familiar with the structures of books was the biggest cue in answering the question. Expository was a new term for me. The whole theme of organizing and structuring information and the content of a whole book resonates with data visualization.

Six categories for presentations of data

The books I focused on in my independent research were nonfiction picture books with a few exceptions from fiction. They were all published in the United States. And originated – with a couple exceptions. I wanted a viable, balanced visual/verbal narrative, so I excluded books that more resembled atlases – where the story was told with primarily verbal narrative and illustrations were in a secondary role. I excluded books with infographics in their title.

The main source library for my work was the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature’s “Book Nook” that displays approximately 5,000 newly published titles for children and young adults. Arriving in January I was able to go through the books of 2021 as well as books of 2022 up until May. Furthermore I looked into older books, mostly through recommendations from teachers and students at Simmons, staff at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art and interviewees. I also explored books from nonfiction award listings, magazine reviews and at the Public Library of Boston and at bookstores.

Based on my findings I created six categories for the presentations of data, and wrote a blog article for each category. In each article I first go through the presentations of data found on single spreads, used as a part of the narrative. Second, I present books that have a structure fitting the category. These books (under “Looking at Structures”) are all expository.

1. Illustrated Maps

Maps are the most usual form of data visualization in children’s nonfiction picture books. It’s not rare to find maps in fiction picture books, too. A lot of them are world maps. The maps in picture books are usually simple, easy to read and fathom, well annotated. Usually they are focused on telling one thing or a storyline, and it is clearly presented. Read more.

2. Cutaway Illustrations

Cutaway illustrations – including anatomy illustrations and exploded views – can present very different subjects: animals, humans, plants, houses, ships etc. Exploded views are often of technical subjects. Cutaway illustrations are visual information you cannot see in real life: outside and inside both visible at the same time. Read more.

3. Depictions of Time

Timelines or other continuums are the most common depictions of time. The shape can be straight (horizontal or vertical), curved or entirely round. A whole book can be a timeline. Or time can be presented through page numbering of a biography book, standing for years in a person’s life. Read more.

4. Classification

Presentations of data that exhibit classification of some sort are usually seen with animals and plants – based on scientific taxonomies, that are hierarchical. Enumeration, topical outline or the alphabet are also organizational patterns found in nonfiction picture books. Read more.

5. Visual Comparisons

Picture books are great platforms for visual comparisons of size: height, length or area. The play between big and small is visible in a lot of fiction work, too. The actual book can be involved in the comparison. Read more.

6. Numerical Data

Visual representations of numbers and numerical data. Presentations of data in this category show amounts, growth and dividing. This category is what data visualization is often first thought to mean: charts and graphs. These presentations I encountered the least in children’s nonfiction picture books. Read more.


All the examples I show in my articles are not necessarily data visualization, at least on their own; and I don’t wish to encourage the term to be used loosely. But when children are the audience and the intention is to introduce the future world of visual communication I think embracing a wider approach to the term serves the purpose.

A very big and warm thank you for everyone who helped me in my project. Special thanks to Cathryn Mercier and Shelley Isaacson!

I will continue working with these themes: The next phase is in Finland with nonfiction picture books published in Finland and the way they visualize data.

Author: Pirita Tolvanen

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

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