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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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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