Visual Comparisons

“Never leave a number all by itself. Never believe that one number on its own can be meaningful. If you are offered one number, always ask for at least one more. Something to compare it with.”

Hans Rosling: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think

Visual comparisons are rather common in children’s nonfiction picture books. You can compare different things visually. Here the focus is on size: height, length or area.

Visual comparisons look easy when they are done right, and if they’re not – well, they make you frown. Your beholding flow stops. Picture books are great platforms for visual information like this, and the play between big and small is visible in a lot of fiction work, too. Visual comparisons that don’t need words to be comprehended allow children to be the ones to catch what’s happening.

When looking at visual comparisons from visual/verbal narrative point of view, they are primarily visual and the verbal part is selective and sparse.

I have given it thought whether this category should be on its own or should it be merged with the next one (Numerical data). All this, comparing of sizes, is of course mathematical data even though numbers might not be visible. But because of the audience (children) and form (picture book) I continue keeping them separated. You could say – this is a good category for approaching numerical data.

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

The numbers can be there, of course, like in Chickenology. But the numbers are additional information: the grand focus of the illustration is on the boy and the chickens, especially the big black one. Here the comparison is of height.

My First Book of Dinosaur Comparisons by Sara Hurst & Ana Seixas (Illustration), 2021
My First Book of Dinosaur Comparisons by Sara Hurst & Ana Seixas (Illustration), 2021

The book by Sara Hurst and Ana Seixas, built around visual comparisons, does a good job. The comparisons are easy to grasp: You don’t necessarily need to read the text to understand that the T-rex is the size of a Londoner bus, or that the triceratops is the size of a bulldozer. Feather lengths are compared to a pencil and a large banana. The measuring tape, given to show the length of Anchiornis, gives you a one-step-further comparison to the real world’s measures.

Heads and Tails Underwater by John Canty (Author & Illustrator), 2021

Heads and Tails Underwater is a good example of a very picture book kind of way to show and compare size. Most of the other animals in the book only take up two pages on two spreads. But the whale takes 4 pages on 3 spreads: a whole extra spread, as can be seen in the picture above, because of its size.

Looking at structures

Can a visual comparison be the main structural factor of a picture book? Yes it can. Jason Chin’s Your Place in the Universe is comparisons from the beginning to the end, starting with the book itself and ending to the end of the universe. And when moving on to the next one you always see the previous page content on the left side as a comparison.

Your Place in the Universe by Jason Chin (Author & Illustrator), 2020

Chin uses the book itself as a start to comparing: 8-year-olds are about five times as tall as the book. Chin has a unique approach to data; and his upcoming book is somewhat a sequel to Your Place in the Universe: The Universe in You: A Microscopic Journey. It goes to the opposite direction!

I am a book. I am a portal to the universe. (2020) by designer and artist Stefanie Posavec and data journalist and researcher Miriam Quick was created to be an interactive experience. Every measurement in it is represented on a 1:1 scale. “Hold me up to the sky. How many stars lie behind my two pages?”

During my Fulbright project I’ve learned to use the word behold rather than read when it comes to picture books. Seems it would be especially appropriate with this book!

Visual Comparisons are the fifth 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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