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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Numerical Data

“…many of us are cajoled by the mere presence of numbers and charts in the media we consume, no matter whether we can interpret them well.”

Alberto Cairo: How Charts Lie – Getting Smarter about Visual Information

Visual representations of numbers and numerical data are the core of my Fulbright project — that is what I thought when I started. I thought I would mostly focus on this category. And it would have been true had I focused on the infographics books.

But I excluded them. The contrast started to feel big. Infographics books are full of representations of numerical data, and in other books they are rare. Infographics books often refer to infographics in the title — I felt addressing an audience already interested in the theme.

And there aren’t that many of them.

Few words on my thoughts behind the whole project

The year 2020 brought data visualization in front of our eyes more than ever before. Graphs, charts and different kinds of visualizations on amounts of covid cases and deaths filled the media. It was all numbers. The ones who are best equipped in reading them are people with good education and who work with charts and graphs on a daily basis. Those people already had the tools to not just interpret and understand but start digesting the new data.

I don’t think everyone did. They are not innate skills. I saw a lot of graphs and charts I didn’t understand. I highly doubt I’m the only one. In my client work for several years, I’ve learned that people don’t easily say when they don’t understand a graph or a visualization. They just hum along.

I think there are a lot of people who don’t see a lot of data visualization in their daily life. I think it’s true with a lot of artists, for example. They don’t open up Excel and PowerPoint in their daily work. Why would they?

Do picture book makers get a little insecure or shy with numbers? I often wonder, looking at creative clever gorgeous nonfiction picture books that could tell about their themes through numbers, too, but they don’t.

Let’s see what I found.

Lines, Bars and Circles: How William Playfair Invented Graphs by Helaine Becker & Marie-Ève Tremblay (Illustrator), 2017

A book about the person who invented charts and graphs, William Playfair!

The Quest for Z: The True Story of Explorer Percy Fawcett and a Lost City in the Amazon by Greg Pizzoli (Author & Illustrator), 2017

The death count on the left page shows how many have disappeared or died in search of Percy Fawcett and his two comrades. I was rather sure I would find data presented like this more in children’s nonfiction picture books (with less dire topics).

Lifetime: The Amazing Numbers in Animal Lives by Lola M Schaefer & Christopher Silas Neal (Illustrator), 2013

Lifetime is a picture book that shows a lifetime in different numbers. The book has a very interesting approach on the subject and a comfortable pace, and the amount of information per spread is precise; there’s no rush.

Climate Action: The Future is in Our Hands by Georgina Stevens & Katie Rewse (Illustrator), 2021

Climate Action doesn’t have infographics in its title, but I’d say it is an infographics book. The reason I still chose to pick it here is the bar graph on the left on this spread, on greenhouse gases. When I first saw it I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to place illustrations inside the bars; would it make the whole information (ahem, the main thing) hard to read or remember. But I just couldn’t forget this graph. It was the first time I saw someone illustrate the bars on a bar graph with the content. I definitely remembered what the first two bars were.

Ever since I have considered this the single most interesting graph I’ve encountered in the project. (Would I recommend it to be widely used elsewhere? Let’s not go that far!)

Looking at structures

Anno’s Counting Book by Mitsumasa Anno (Author & Illustrator), 1977

There are lots of counting books from 1 to 10. I chose Anno’s Counting Book, a classic from 1977, as an example because of the counting blocks on the left side of each spread. Clever introduction to bar graphs. The book counts from 1 to 12.

One Grain of Rice – A Mathematical Folktale by Demi (Author & Illustrator), 1997

One Grain of Rice – A Mathematical Folktale by Demi is a lesson on how numbers grow through doubling. Different animals carrying bags and baskets are needed (more and more) to carry all the rice that keeps doubling up each day for 30 days in a row. The culmination is a double gatefold showing 256 elephants carrying the rice.

Storytime Math

Storytime Math by Charlesbridge is a children’s picture book series where fictional stories are built around math themes, such as sorting and classifying, patterns, proportional thinking, spatial sense, to mention a few. The addressing of the themes reflect what children do in their everyday lives; things and situations where mathematical thinking is needed. You don’t necessarily even realize these are math books. They don’t underline the mathematics, and they don’t end with an answer.

Bracelets for Bina’s Brothers by Rajani LaRocca & Chaaya Prabhat (Illustrator), 2021

In Bracelets for Bina’s Brothers Bina arranges patterns from different colored beads for her three brothers.

Usha and the Big Digger by Amitha Jagannath Knight & Sandhya Prabhat (Illustrator), 2021

The themes of Usha and the Big Dipper are geometry and spatial sense. Usha and her sister and cousin are looking at constellations on a night sky.

Needless to say, I love this approach. I would love to see a similar book series on infographics and data visualization, too. Something not underlined in the title, but rather woven inside the story (narrative or expository), close to children’s daily lives.

Numerical Data is the sixth and final 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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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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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. (K for Knock on Doors, Q for Questions, U for Uplifting…)

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 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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Picture this: What Illustrators do best

One of the first books Cathryn Mercier recommended for me upon arrival at the Simmons University and Center for the Study of Children’s Literature was “Picture This: How Pictures Work” by Molly Bang. It’s a charming and invigorating book, first published in 1991, and it is used in teaching at the Simmons’ children’s literature program’s The Picturebook course.

The book shows how the structural elements in a picture affect our emotions. How we perceive shapes, colors and other compositional elements of a scene within the context of our own experience.

As an illustrator I found a lot in the book familiar and something I had knowingly and intuitively been following along. To read it through wasn’t tiresome, quite the opposite. Bang presents her insights and principles with such curiosity and zest that it was hard to stop reading. Or learning.

Illustrators work with pictures. They know how to make them scary, joyful, serene or sad. Below is an illustration from my personal project: summary of the year 2020. I will apply a couple of Bang’s principles and notions on it.

Bang’s 1st principle: “Smooth, flat, horizontal shapes give us a sense of stability and calm.”

I thought of this as a calm, centered illustration that would present its information horizontally in rows (wavy clotheslines) and could have a hint of longing to it. The pools were closed starting early March until the beginning of June and then again they closed towards the end of November.

Bang’s 6th principle: “White or light backgrounds feel safer to us than dark backgrounds because we can see well during the day and only poorly at night.”

The background color for all of these images was black or dark purple. I knew its effect – it was 2020 I was talking about!

I chose blue as a hint to the water that I was missing. And red for the words of months when that missing happened. White is the strongest contrast on a black background, that’s why the main narrative (text) is white, but this slightly pale red would be strong, too, and it would catch attention only how red does. It would tell different things.

Bang writes: “What is red? Blood and fire.

From emotions to data

“When I was making the illustrations, my husband suggested I decide on the emotion in every picture before I begin it, and that I make that feeling very clear”, Bang writes.

I think what Bang writes is true with data, too. Whether it’s an illustration or a story on data, the illustrator has to know the data in every illustration before they begin it, and make that data very clear. Otherwise the message might get lost or blurry.

Illustrators have an incredible skillset in making pictures that affect our emotions. They know what Bang is talking about. What if illustrators could use those skills on illustrating data?

This is the question I am pondering in my project. What would data visualization look like if it were made by illustrators and aimed at children?

What do you think?

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.

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?