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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