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.

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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.

Interested in more?

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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.

Interested in more?

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Illustration and text go together

I have been thrilled to learn the terms ‘text-image interaction’ and ‘visual and verbal narrative’ during my Fulbright project – and get acquainted with the talk of them. For some time I had been searching for the best words to talk about this theme: I feel it combines picture books and data visualization big time.

In the book ”How Picturebooks Work” (Garland Publishing 2001) Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott walk us through different ways of categorizing text-picture interaction first by referring to other scholarly works and then revealing their own ‘word/image table’. One of the discussed concepts is from Joanne Golden, which Nikolajeva & Scott see as an excellent starting point for a spectrum even wider.

All these concepts in the book focus in the way words and pictures collaborate in telling stories. Since I’m interested in the way words and pictures collaborate in communicating data, I thought as an experiment I would apply Golden’s five categories to data visualization / illustrating data work I’ve done. If it works out, I will continue to the wider spectrum by Nikolajeva & Scott. Let’s see what happens!

1. The text and pictures are symmetrical

These are scenes from an animation for the Finnish Swimming Teaching and Lifesaving Federation. The intended audience was immigrant families. The text tells exactly the same that you can see in the illustration: the illustration shows exactly what’s told with words.

2. The text depends on pictures for clarification

I thought of these as entities that would not be understood without the picture. First one is an exploded view of a heart rate monitor that was made for the Runner magazine. The technical vocabulary is rather difficult and it would not be an easy read for non-experts without the illustration: illustration makes it comprehensible.

Pie chart is one of the simplest ways to present data such as in the second illustration: Three answer options to the question (from an article series by the Finnish Sports Confederation on sports and ethics) and how much each was voted for by a jury.

3. Illustration enhances, elaborates text

This category still shows collaboration of text and picture, where both carry the weight of communication. The difference with the previous category is that here the visual enhancement is not as crucial. The text alone is comprehensible.

The first illustration is a scene from an animation on low-carbon construction for the Ministry of Environment. The illustration enhances the stages referred to and the cyclicity of the life cycle (which is more visible in the animation with parts rotating back from the final to the first phase).

The second illustration is from my own project, Year 2020 illustrated. It was a story of 8 illustrations with text summarizing that year and its numbers.

4. The text carries primary narrative, illustration is selective

I think this category can point to a rather traditional, decorative role of illustration, or it can mean zooming into a specific important detail.

These illustrations were made for a presentation of NodeHealth project’s conclusions. Both illustration was built around three sentences, so text was definitely primary. The illustrations zoom in on the related professionals discussed – and they decorate.

5. The illustration carries primary narrative, text is selective

These pieces would not exist if it weren’t for the illustration: it’s the whole point. And the text follows its lead.

First illustration was made for a driving school text book. It was a pair to a bar chart of car accident causes. The writer wanted an illustration to emphasize that most accidents are caused by failures in estimation and observation, not in failures in operating the car or other reasons.

The map illustration was made for a magazine about the different definitions of the Arctic and the operators involved – Arctic Council member countries and European Union. This was the first time I actually sat down and stared at the globe from this point of view.

This data visualization was made for a publication on guidance of refugees. It shows the amounts of residence permits (on the basis of international protection) in Finland (2959) and Sweden (6540) in comparison to the amount of asylum applications in the European Union in 2019.

Translations in the illustrations were made by me.

List of clients: the Finnish Swimming Teaching and Lifesaving Federation, the Finnish Runner magazine, the Ministry of Environment, The Finnish Sports Confederation Valo, Superson, Autokoulu Ressu, Vihreä Tuuma and the Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment.