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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“…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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