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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