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.

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.

Interested in more?

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

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.

Year 2021 illustrated

I like to follow the balance between my illustration work and infographics/data visualizations. It is not always easy to draw the line, since most of my projects are a combination of both. And not rarely a project that starts out as an infographics commission ends up being an illustration – with perhaps a very communicative function.

My interest in this balance is one of the reasons why I’ve done these summaries of my years (2018 & 2020). This year I decided not to count the amounts of illustrations or other work pieces like I’ve done before. It was always tricky to do (the projects are so different from one another) and the number didn’t basically tell me anything.

This year I based it on time used.

In 2021 I worked on 2 books (finished 1).

Book projects are the backbone of my professional year: they take so much time. So they need to be planned ahead and usually still it’s a juggling act on getting it all done on time.

And of course they are important. And of course there are always new ones screaming for my attention.

In 2021 I illustrated 253 people.

In the previous years I counted only the characters with facial features (2020: 145, 2018: 85). But I often illustrate tiny human figures, and some of them clearly represent a specific gender. So this year I counted all the characters who were more than mere stick figures or something very general.

Illustration is often intertwined with stereotypes in order to communicate, and I believe everyone has moments of bias and blindness. As much as possible I portray non-binary in my characters. It is work-in-progress, always.

Gender equality is important to me especially because I’ve illustrated subjects like rally car racing and motorcycle road racing – traditionally male-dominated. Nowadays it’s time they look different.

These numbers, obviously, are based on how the characters look. I’ve had a fair share of notions about eye lashes on men… perhaps someone else might do the math a little different!

Bye 2021! You and your numbers.

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?

Year 2020 illustrated

My 2020’s numbers illustrated. I did this two years ago, too, and thought it’s time for an update with new numbers of the strange year.

Towards new!

Downsizing big and bold

Two years ago I arranged an exhibition big and bold. 16 illustrations, height 2,3 meters, width 6 meters. Altogether the exhibition was nearly 100 meters wide, it was outside, and it was my first exhibition ever.

No one knows how many people saw it during those 2,5 weeks, but I know several who went and saw it on a motorcycle. I had wished for that, since the illustrations were from a book that told about a motorcycle road racing legend, Jarno Saarinen. The exhibition was following a road that used to be a race circuit, next to the Helsinki Olympic Stadium.

After the exhibition was over, I took the pieces down, rolled them up and carried to my storage, washed them (both sides) and rolled them up again. It was a lot of work, they were huge and heavy, and when I closed the storage door there was nothing I wanted more than to forget they existed.

Don’t get me wrong. I love them! Among those 16 were the illustrations that got highly commended in the World Illustration Awards children’s book category 2019. The printing turned out superb, they’re truly impressive with their size. People wanted to buy, I wanted to sell. Until the buyers realized it was actually 6 meters wide we’re talking about.

They were just TOO BIG.

When the lockdown started in March 2020, I knew what my corona project would be: downsizing the big and bold exhibition posters. They had started their siren songs from the depths of the storage (two stories up from my apartment) and I knew I couldn’t hide anymore.

But how? Where should I cut? I started it on screen.

I had to create something new. I couldn’t look at them the same way I had when creating illustrations for the book, to tell the story. And I had to pay attention to the size.

The motorcycles were the most interesting to cut. I had loved illustrating all the small technical parts and to learn how a motorcycle works – even only shallowly. Now all that small technical got to be highlighted better than before.

Photographer Tuomas Kaisti

I don’t think I ever will arrange an exhibition that big again. But if someone asked for my advice in arranging one – if they should do it or not, I would say in a heartbeat: “Go for it.”

Photographer Tuomas Kaisti

And then I would add: “You can always downsize them later.”

Five years

I started this blog in January 2015. I wanted to have a platform of my own to do something, to post something. I have done so and enjoyed!

In preparing my own portfolio update recently I updated this blog first. Whilst testing out themes I compiled together the illustrations I had posted here 2015-2020. All of them were created with the idea of publishing them on a free platform where not a lot of traffic was happening. I liked what I saw, and realised what I owed to this blog.

Perhaps from now on I will take a different course here. I might do something, post something, a bit more. Since 2015 I’ve cut down eating ice cream but I still love the name – and the Blondie song!

Motorcycle Stories

Alongside my very dear book project “The Baron” I drew some other motorcycles as well during last year. You can say I kinda fell for them ❤ Especially in the old race motorcycles there’s such simplicity and beauty. And the thought alone to be illustrating motorcycles for kids charmed me… I could use all the color palettes I wanted, I could illustrate all the tiny bits with as much fun as I only could!

Pirita Tolvanen Motorcycle Stories 02 Ducati 02

This Ducati from the year 2002 is one of my favorites. It just keeps charming me!

Pirita Tolvanen Motorcycle Stories 03 Red Pipe
Pirita Tolvanen Motorcycle Stories 04 Raisu 78

Yes, it was a small and cute one ❤

Pirita Tolvanen Motorcycle Stories 05 Yamaha

Revolution counter – how’s that for a word!