I gave a masterclass talk on Data Visualization and Nonfiction Picture Books on Women’s Day, March 8th, at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in Bologna, Italy. Thank you everyone who came! I had a focused audience that asked brilliant questions (“Can you show examples of emotional structures in data illustrations?” I will get back to that!).
In the classic hierarchy pyramid of data, data is the bottom and information is on top of data. Then comes knowledge, and wisdom is on the top. My focus is on data and information, in this order, and focus on data was the main theme of my talk.
Data is raw information that doesn’t have a message. It doesn’t have a narrative; or a beginning, middle and an end. It usually doesn’t have anything specific to say to you. It only starts to speak to you when you spend time with it and listen. Information is different: It has a message that it wants to deliver.
Picture books as a format are exploratory. Children approach them to explore. The beating heart of data visualization is exploratory, too. The data is there for you to go and explore.
Explanatory visualizations are usually referred to as information design, and I have worked mostly with explanatory visualizations in my career and client work. Explanatory is not bad, and we need more of that generally eg. in society. Picture books, on the other hand, need much more of the exploratory. They are not an explanatory format. However, it is not hard to find picture books with a clear explanatory function or tone of communication.
At the moment the work in my project consists of answering the question: What is missing? I’m referring to the forms of visualizations and elements of data visualization that are not yet there in nonfiction picture books.
I asked the question from my audience in Bologna. In recent years, the field of children’s nonfiction has done a great job in answering that question thematically. The trend of rebel girls and women’s biographies are good examples. Another visible data-resonating theme is the climate crisis. For example, in my review of 23 Finnish nonfiction picture books from 2021, two books presented the same set of data: biomass of mammals (60% livestock, 40% humans, and 4% wild mammals). This data is precisely where it needs to be, especially when noted that a big part of children’s nonfiction is of animals and nature. But what is not yet there?
Jer Thorp reminds us in his book Living in Data – A Citizen’s Guide to a Better Information Future (2021) that with every data set that exists, someone wanted it to exist. Thorp refers to an artist and data researcher Mimi Onuoha, who has collected The Library of Missing Datasets. According to Onuoha, there are several reasons why data is missing: mismatch between incentive and resources, the collecting is too tricky, there’s too big of a burden of reporting for the individual – or someone didn’t want the data to be collected in the first place.
You can only visualize data sets that exist. It is choice upon choice. Children’s books are rarely collecting the data they show; they visualize data from secondary sources. Secondary sources bring along the need for responsibility and critical thinking.
In a panel discussion on Censorship of Books at the Bologna Book Fair three speakers were from the United States, three from Europe, and this reflected the discussion and examples. I enjoyed the bold global view of the panel discussion. In Europe censorship often is about eg. books not made for certain groups out of prejudices such as ‘these groups of people don’t read’, awards not handed out to specific books, decisions made during translation, removal of unwanted content.
A large majority of book censorship in the U.S. at the moment is happening because of advocacy organisations focused on demanding censorship of certain books and ideas in schools. “The vast majority of the books targeted by these groups for removal feature LGBTQ+ characters or characters of color, and/or cover race and racism in American history, LGBTQ+ identities, or sex education.” tells a report by PEN America.
It is politically motivated and systematic. The American author David Levithan warned Europeans: “What the far right is doing in our country, conservatives in your countries are taking notes from.” There were two examples mentioned in the panel discussion from Italy and the Netherlands, which reminded chillingly much the work of the advocacy organisations in the U.S.
Professor of children’s literature at the University of Bologna, Giorgia Grilli, reminded us of self-censorship and commented that a world where artists adapt to the dominant view worries her. “When artists are not willing to write about something that is ideologically charged”. (You can read more of my reporting of the panel discussion here on Publishers Weekly’s article.)
This all resonates with the question of What is missing?, even though something missing isn’t always because of censorship. Censorship is linked with what is already there: it is trying to make something disappear. But what if something is not there in the first place?
An exhibition Beauty and the World, curated by professor Grilli and Ilaria Dindelli, was on display at Biblioteca Salaborsa in Bologna. The exhibition displayed over 600 original nonfiction picture books published internationally over the last 15 years. The books were divided into 11 sections, that could be followed along two different paths: Sizes, Numbers and Measurements and Visible/Invisible.
“Books with a clearly subjective, ‘authorial’ perspective and personal illustrative style were deliberately privileged over books that present their material in a supposedly objective, neutral, dispassionate manner.”
The Beauty that was collected to this one hall was an impressively wide variety of nonfiction. The exhibition nearly knocked me off my feet! First of all, the books on display were all picture books. They really were. I deliberately focus on picture books in my work; still, when we’re talking about data visualization and nonfiction, you find more examples of charts and graphs in illustrated books where text is leading the way. I feel the focus occasionally slips easily out of picture books, even though I find it counterintuitive: Charts and graphs are visual. Shouldn’t they be found primarily in the most visual form of literature, a picture book?
“Some were left out, even if — or especially because — they are extremely fashionable today, as is the case of (didactic and paternalistic) books on climate change and (women’s) biographies.”
Second, the books in the exhibition were all nonfiction. You found books on deepest oceans, highest buildings, migrating birds, animal bones, rockets, trains, microbes and human body. Books on classifying and sorting, books on alphabets, books on counting, books on comparisons. All in all: lots of different creative approaches to the real World, not just approaches through stories (though they are a part of nonfiction, too).
The exhibition talks about The New Nonfiction Picturebook, as well as does this book Non-fiction Picturebooks by Grilli. I’m very much on board with this term and its visual, innovative and exploratory connotations.
Last, I have visited some quality libraries and bookstores in my life, where nonfiction is appreciated, but still it is more usual to see the spines of nonfiction picture books whereas on the fiction shelf you see the book covers. It was unforgettable to experience such a big number of nonfiction picture books on shelves showing their covers instead of spines.
Thank you Bologna!
PS. Quotes are from the Beauty and the World exhibition’s texts.