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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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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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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Cutaway Illustrations

Cutaway illustrations – including anatomy illustrations and exploded views – are very common in children’s nonfiction picture books. They are kind of like maps but on different subjects: animals, humans, plants, houses, ships…. Exploded views you often see of technical subjects.

This is visual information you cannot see in real life: Outside and inside both visible at the same time. Usually they take a lot of the illustrator’s time, and require extensive background work. The illustration might be put together from several different materials and sources: photographs, live sketching, video footage, diagrams and articles. Expert help in different stages is crucial. When it’s nonfiction everything needs to be accurate, and you just don’t necessarily have a shark nearby to cut open (and don’t want to!).

Neighbourhood Sharks – Hunting with the Great Whites of California’s Farallon Islands by Katherine Roy (Author & Illustrator), 2014

Katherine Roy’s skilled anatomy illustration of a shark shows how its heat exchange system works.

The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin by Peter Sís (Author & Illustrator), 2003

Peter Sís’s cutaway from H.M.S. Beagle, Charles Darwin’s ship departing from Devonport in 1831, shows the ship’s interiors, passengers and crew.

Nano – The Spectacular Science of the Very (Very) Small by Dr. Jess Wade & Melissa Castrillón (Illustrator), 2021

Nano – The Spectacular Science of the Very (Very) Small is a nonfiction book but this house is fiction, I’m guessing – and a good example of a cutaway of a house.

The Message – The Extraordinary Journey of an Ordinary Text Message by Michael Emberley (Author & Illustrator), 2021

Michael Emberley’s exploded view shows the main components of a smartphone.

These illustrations suit picture books: Easy on the eyes, lots of details, a view not possible (or atleast not usual) in real world. You can go back numerous times and search for details you hadn’t noticed before – or then just wonder at the fresh perspective.

When looking at cutaway illustrations from visual/verbal narrative point of view, they are almost always primarily visual and the verbal part is selective and sparse. They first need to work as an illustration and have all the info needed at its place before texts are added. However they might look rather naked without text.

Looking at structures

Can a cutaway illustration be the main structural factor of a book? Can a book be built around a cutaway, anatomy illustration or an exploded view? Yes it can.

Hospital: The Inside Story by Dr. Christle Nwora & Ginnie Hsu (Illustrator), 2022

Hospital: The Inside Story walks you through a hospital and its different wards in one day – it’s like a cutaway in the form of a book. All the wards, their purposes, their crew, equipment and actions are shown.

Pyramid by David Macaulay (Author & Illustrator), 1975

David Macaulay has made numerous impressive books where he dives deep into how things, machines or even entire buildings work. Pyramid is full of different sorts of cutaway illustrations on the construction and use of ancient Egyptian pyramids. Macaulay has a way to combine cutaway illustrations to beautiful full-bleed pictures – all black and white in Pyramid‘s case.

Cutaway illustrations are the second 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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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?

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!

Year 2018 illustrated

Number 106 illustrated; number of illustrations
2018 I finished 106 illustrations.
Pie chart of the illustration type
More than half of the 106 was commissioned work. 28 illustrations was for my children’s book ”The Baron”, and 21 other non-commissioned work pieces.
Number 10 illustrated, number of infographics commissions
Surprising, ha? For me it was! 10 infographics assignments. Such a small number.
Number 8 illustrated: number of animations
8 animations, duration 20,5 seconds in average.
Number 85 illustrated with people's faces
If I were to count all the people I’ve illustrated to crowds this number would be at least 850. But 85 is the number of illustrated people with face features.
Illustration of how many of the 85 people were men/women/other
41 women, 39 men and 5 other.
Number 24 illustrated with motorcycles
But of course.

Onwards. All the best to 2019!