Classification

“…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 Day in the Life Bugs – What Do Bees, Ants, and Dragonflies Get Up To All Day? by Dr. Jessica L. Ware & Chaaya Prabhat (Illustrator), 2022
The Quest for Z: The True Story of Explorer Percy Fawcett and a Lost City in the Amazon by Greg Pizzoli (Author & Illustrator), 2017
Kaleidoscope of Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Life – Their Colors and Patterns Explained by Greer Stothers (Author & Illustrator), 2022

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.

An ABC of Democracy by Nancy E.K. Shapiro & Paulina Morgan (Illustrator), 2022

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.

What Do You Do With a Tail Like This? by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page, 2003

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 – Land and Water Forms Around the World by Christy Hale (Author & Illustrator), 2018

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.

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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 is 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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Cutaway Illustrations

Cutaway illustrations – including anatomy illustrations and exploded views – are very common in children’s nonfiction picture books. They are kind of like maps but on different subjects: animals, humans, plants, houses, ships…. Exploded views you often see of technical subjects.

This is visual information you cannot see in real life: Outside and inside both visible at the same time. Usually they take a lot of the illustrator’s time, and require extensive background work. The illustration might be put together from several different materials and sources: photographs, live sketching, video footage, diagrams and articles. Expert help in different stages is crucial. When it’s nonfiction everything needs to be accurate, and you just don’t necessarily have a shark nearby to cut open (and don’t want to!).

Neighbourhood Sharks – Hunting with the Great Whites of California’s Farallon Islands by Katherine Roy (Author & Illustrator), 2014

Katherine Roy’s skilled anatomy illustration of a shark shows how its heat exchange system works.

The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin by Peter Sís (Author & Illustrator), 2003

Peter Sís’s cutaway from H.M.S. Beagle, Charles Darwin’s ship departing from Devonport in 1831, shows the ship’s interiors, passengers and crew.

Nano – The Spectacular Science of the Very (Very) Small by Dr. Jess Wade & Melissa Castrillón (Illustrator), 2021

Nano – The Spectacular Science of the Very (Very) Small is a nonfiction book but this house is fiction, I’m guessing – and a good example of a cutaway of a house.

The Message – The Extraordinary Journey of an Ordinary Text Message by Michael Emberley (Author & Illustrator), 2021

Michael Emberley’s exploded view shows the main components of a smartphone.

These illustrations suit picture books: Easy on the eyes, lots of details, a view not possible (or atleast not usual) in real world. You can go back numerous times and search for details you hadn’t noticed before – or then just wonder at the fresh perspective.

When looking at cutaway illustrations from visual/verbal narrative point of view, they are almost always primarily visual and the verbal part is selective and sparse. They first need to work as an illustration and have all the info needed at its place before texts are added. However they might look rather naked without text.

Looking at structures

Can a cutaway illustration be the main structural factor of a book? Can a book be built around a cutaway, anatomy illustration or an exploded view? Yes it can.

Hospital: The Inside Story by Dr. Christle Nwora & Ginnie Hsu (Illustrator), 2022

Hospital: The Inside Story walks you through a hospital and its different wards in one day – it’s like a cutaway in the form of a book. All the wards, their purposes, their crew, equipment and actions are shown.

Pyramid by David Macaulay (Author & Illustrator), 1975

David Macaulay has made numerous impressive books where he dives deep into how things, machines or even entire buildings work. Pyramid is full of different sorts of cutaway illustrations on the construction and use of ancient Egyptian pyramids. Macaulay has a way to combine cutaway illustrations to beautiful full-bleed pictures – all black and white in Pyramid‘s case.

Cutaway illustrations are the second 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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Illustrated Maps

“What is it about maps that intrigues us? Why do we pore over them endlessly? The answer can be found in an earlier era, before much of the earth was explored. Maps lessened the fear of the unknown and looked authoritative, even though there were blank spaces filled with animals, compasses, or cartouches, and some of the supposedly known areas were incorrectly drawn.”
Nigel Holmes: Pictorial Maps – History, design, ideas, sources

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. Illustrated maps are the first category I have come up with in my Fulbright project.

The maps in picture books are good. Often beautiful. They are simple, easy to read and fathom, well annotated. Usually they are focused on telling one thing or a storyline, and it is clearly presented. A lot of the maps are world maps. Let me show you a few examples.

The Very True Legend of the Mongolian Death Worms by Sandra Fay (Author & Illustrator), 2022

I like how Sandra Fay has painted the texts, too, in this map on endsheets. (I chose to start with a fiction picture book!)

Ducks Overboard! A True Story of Plastic in Our Oceans by Markus Motum (Author & Illustrator), 2021

The map on Ducks Overboard! tells about the real-life spill of tens of thousands of plastic ducks into the Pacific Ocean in January 1992 and how those ducks floated away from the spill site following ocean currents.

The Story of Climate Change: A First Book About How We Can Help Save Our Planet by Catherine Barr and Steve Williams; illustrated by Amy Husband and Mike Love, 2021

This map doesn’t have place names or other text linked directly to the map, but it’s function is in telling something else: It is used to show climate change destroying the habitats of animals and plants in a big scale. It does require some knowledge of the world map from the reader, but like I mentioned above… kids have most likely seen world maps before.

Just Right – Searching for the Goldilocks Planet by Curtis Manley & Jessica Lanan (Illustrator), 2019

There’s undeniable clarity in this map-in-the-ceiling: “Too cold / hot”! It is welcome when the content is not that common knowledge.

Oceanarium: Welcome to the Museum by Loveday Trinick & Teagan White (Illustrator), 2022

There is barely text on the Oceanarium ‘peeled orange’ map; only names of the five oceans. Such a strong and unusual map doesn’t need words, and it’s positioned at the start of the book. Like it’s saying: Start here but come back as often as you want!

Data visualization is easy to approach through maps

When looking at maps from visual/verbal narrative point of view, maps are almost always primarily visual and the verbal part is selective and sparse. We all know this: we don’t want map information explained to us. The place names are usually adequate.

During my Fulbright project I’ve talked a lot about maps. They are easy to approach; and data visualization is easy to approach through maps. I like the distinction Nigel Holmes makes in his book between atlases and pictorial maps: “Users of an atlas bring their own agenda to the reading process. The atlas is read with a mission; something needs to be found out from the basic factual well of information.”

Pictorial or illustrated maps don’t need to be approached with a mission or an agenda. “It (pictorial map) concentrates the readers’ attention on some part of itself, announcing its subject clearly – and pictorially. It is therefore different from the atlas map in that it has a specific message.”

I think this distinction can be spotted elsewhere in data visualization, too, especially when looking at things from the perspective of illustration.

Looking at structures

Can a map be the main structural factor of a book? Yes, it can.

Maps by Aleksandra Mizielińska and Daniel Mizieliński, 2013, shows a map on its every spread, altogether 52: one of the world, seven of them maps of continents and the rest are maps of countries. The chosen countries of each continent are arranged starting from the north and moving southbound. In the end of the book you can find a collection of flags.

Prisoners of Geography: Our World Explained in 12 Simple Maps by Tim Marshall, Grace Easton & Jessica Smith (Illustrators), 2019, is a book built around 12 maps. This is a book that’s not underestimating anyone: I love it that they made a book for kids from Marshall’s original book of 10 maps.

Illustrated maps are the first 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.

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What’s so special about picture books?

There’s picture books and there’s illustrated books.

To first have a text, then commission an illustrator to illustrate it, and then put it all together maybe using a graphic designer is a way to make an illustrated book. I know this is how a lot of publishers work, and their expertise lies especially in finding the right illustrator to match a specific text or a specific writer. But to make a picture book like that?

I attended a seminar in Tampere, Finland on November 18th by the Finnish Institute for Children’s Literature. It focused on the illustration in children’s books. For me the seminar only crystallized the specialty of a picture book, an artform of story, illustration and words. Hence the idea of words coming to life and being revised to perfection before an illustrator even comes along puzzles me. In that case is it more of an illustrated book, a picture-book-lookalike? How much is it a picture book if words are the ones running the show? If the pictures are left with the role of a decorative element, something you turn your eyes to after reading the text? Counter-intuitive, wouldn’t you say, if it’s a picture book?

Text first, pictures second

We live in a crazily visual culture with the never-stopping image feed of social media and daily communication through emojis and memes. Yet we strongly hold onto words as a source of real and serious information. The idea of words coming first, pictures second is so usual we don’t even stop to think could it be the other way around. The illustrators and other visual designers know this, but if it’s only the illustrator raising their voice in wanting to start working earlier in the process it is rarely heard. Or it may be misunderstood: “The illustrator is just so eager to start selecting the right pencils…”

With data visualizations the presence of a visual designer on the starting line is perhaps even more obvious. In the Data Visualization Handbook the authors Juuso Koponen, Jonatan Hildén and Tapio Vapaasalo (2016, the original Finnish version) go through work processes of information design. Below I’m freely summarizing a few ideas why they think the visual designer needs to be aboard when the project starts.

The best ideas typically are born out of interaction between people with different skill sets. A good visual designer knows the presentations of data generally better than the content experts. Defining the target audience and its needs are decisions of the early stage where the input of visual designer is helpful: a lot of later decisions depend heavily on the needs of the target audience. Also, a good information designer understands the type of data that is needed to construct visualizations usually better than the content experts. It can be very time-consuming to start proceeding with the wrong type of data that is challenging to bend into visual shape – desired or any.

Not just eager to sharpen pencils

I don’t mean to exaggerate. Stellar picture books born out of a brilliant text do exist. The illustrator’s take on the text influences and changes it, and could lead to a properly equal cooperation of a kick-ass author-illustrator match.

Picture books can tell about something small and light and leave the reader delighted and entertained. Or they can tell about things big and heavy, and leave the reader touched and transformed. Non-fiction picture books can take a real and serious idea and make it even more real and serious – even so serious that adults pay attention! Illustrators are the ones deepest invested in the soul of a picture book, and they need to be involved every step of the way. They need to be there when selecting the topic and collecting data, and when the needs of target audience are decided.

Otherwise the book might end up an illustrated book, where the reader reads the text first and glimpses at the decorating pictures second. Counter-intuitive, wouldn’t you say, if it’s a picture book?