Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Our entire childhood is spent figuring out the pathways, signposts and goalposts of life. Then the rest of our lives are spent trying to figure whether it is the destination or the journey that we ought to value the greater. It sure would be nice if we were issued a map at birth with an X marking the spot. But the freedom and the challenge is that there is no map and no X until we create them. (See Maps booklist)

There are three abstract skills that we acquire in childhood and which we use to a greater or lesser extent throughout our lives: reading, numeracy, and abstract representation in two dimensions of our three dimensional world (mapping if you will). Each skill has its challenges and most of us are stronger in one skill compared to the other two, but they are strongly related by their abstraction and there is a strong correlation between performance on one skill and performance on the others. If you are good at reading, you tend also to be good numerically and at conceptual representation and vice-versa.

Edward R. Tufte is a professor emeritus of statistics and political economy at Yale University and has written a number of marvelous books (best suited for adults and Young Adults) on the design considerations in representing reality on a page. Two books in particular stand out; The Visual Display of Quantitative Information and Envisioning Information (Tufte self-publishes his books which are available directly from him at his site). They are both superior examples of very technical and arcane information explained to the layman in clear and entertaining prose. He summarizes the challenge of mapmaking very simply:

The world is complex, dynamic, multidimensional; the paper is static, flat. How are we to represent the rich visual world of experience and measurement on a mere flatland?

It is an interesting challenge. Reading is a gateway skill. Once you have mastered the basic concepts and skills necessary to translate unmannered and seemingly random black scratchings on a white surface, it is a relatively short jump to beginning to comprehending the world in mathematical terms. Those base skills are a capacity for conceptual thinking, abstract reasoning, and most critically and powerfully, the application of imagination.

Very fortunately, and capricious and random as they might seem, both reading and numeracy follow set rules which, once apprehended, simplify the learning process. Once you know the basics rules for spelling for example, you can pretty accurately spell most news words that you might hear, even if you have never seen them before.

Mapping is somewhat different though, and is an area where there is the greatest of latitude to the author of the map and where imagination is at a premium. How you represent a river or railroad track or the terrain of a countryside or the layout of a house follow some conventions but not uniformly and not consistently. Every map has to be studied for its own terms of reference. Is the blue line on this map a river or is it a secondary road? Is the hatched line in this map a railroad or is it a property boundary?


©1988 Maps International Inc.

Even the few traditional conventions such as North being at the top of the page are occasionally set on their head, causing much visual consternation. Yet this near complete freedom from convention allows us to create novel ways of showing reality in a fashion that revitalizes our thinking and assumptions. Many people know of Napoleon's disastrous invasion of Russia in the summer of 1812 and his ultimate defeat by "General Winter". It is one thing to know that. Your comprehension of that event and its sheer magnitude is amplified many-fold when you view Charles Minard's map of the event, adjudged by Tufte that "It may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn."


Charles Minard's Carte figurative des pertes successives en hommes de l'Armée Française dans la campagne de Russie 1812-1813

In this single two-dimensional map, Minard has managed to display 1) basic topographic information (rivers), 2) size of Napoleon's army over time, 3) direction of the army's movements, 4) its location, 5) progress by calendar, and 6) the temperatures encountered. In this single static picture there is an entire story and tragedy laid out for examination. It is the type of map at which you can stare for long periods of time, conjuring what that story might be.

Maps are one of those artifacts of our lives that at first seem purely functional. There is always some mis-folded, ragged, roadmap in the glove compartment or a road atlas, dog-eared, rough-edged, and discolored from some long ago Coca-Cola spill, banging around under the seat in the car. Mapquest makes things easier but nothing can replace the utility of a map.

Despite their functional nature, maps exercise a certain fascination that grips a particular part of the population (I hold my hand up as a self-confessed cartographile). It is akin to train-spotting, or books about type fonts, or some other esoterica. I suspect that maps represent, to both child and adult, an invitation to adventure, discovery and travel. They are the magic carpet that can take us from our rooms into the wide world we do not know and encounter in our minds that which we will never encounter in real life. In this respect, maps are like reading, giving greater implication to the phrase to "read a map." When examining a map, it is, like reading, not just an exercise in interpretation of what the symbols mean, but also an exercise in extrapolation and imagination. Each map is read differently because each map reader brings something different to the interpretative process.

We use maps to store and share information; information which can have great value and consequence. In the 14th and 15th centuries, as Europeans began exploring the greater world, discovering new continents and pathways to them, and began a long history of map-making, the maps that were created were treated as we might do plans for a nuclear bomb of the recipe for Coca-Cola. They were tucked away in secure royal libraries or academies, laws were passed against transmitting maps to competing nations, and punishments were enacted. This was serious stuff.

There are all sorts of maps. There are the most familiar maps such as those which allow us to determine where we are and where we are headed such as roadmaps. Closely akin to these are the maps which give us topographical information which allow us to understand the nature of the land through which we will be passing.

But mapping is much more than that. It is not just about destinations. As often as not it is about what's out there - what does reality look like? There are maps that show a child all the parts of their body and how the blood circulates. There are maps that give us a new perspective such as those which are based on information we might already know but forcing us to think about that information in a different way.

Maps can be a great reality check as well. The oft cited statistics that the USA creates 20-25% of the world's pollution, uses 20-25% of the world's energy, etc., takes on a different hue when you look at a map of the world that shows each country proportional to its Gross Domestic Product. When you see that the USA is 25% of the economic activity of the world, all those other statistics suddenly come into perspective.


Created by Mark E.J. Newman

There are maps that hone in on a simple fact and present us with mysteries. Take, for example, this map showing the terms used for a carbonated drink in different parts of the country. It is interesting in its own right just how strong those differences can be by region. Broadly the southerner asks for a "coke" as a generic term for any carbonated beverage, the mid-westerner and north-westerner asks for "pop". The Californian and someone from the Northeast asks for "soda." But like all good maps, the longer you stare at it the more you want to know. What's that cluster of "soda" drinkers doing around St. Louis? There is a story in there somewhere. And is Alaska the single most linguistically confused state when it comes to beverages?


Hat Tip: Strange Maps

So how do we introduce our children to maps and to thinking about the world conceptually and showing it in a two-dimensional frame? There are some nice books that build skills for attention to detail and finding things (stripping out the signal from the noise is one of the first skills a child has to develop) such as Where's Wally? (See our Pigeon Post of August 12, 2007, You See but You Do Not Observe for more on this topic of observation.) Later on, at the independent reader level, such childhood mystery stories as the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew can help reinforce the idea of observation and cumulative interpretation.

Next, there are books that are almost reference books in nature, but are visually arresting in their representation of a real-life thing in an abstract way on a two-dimensional page. David Macaulay is of course a master of this with such books as Cathedral or Castle in which a child can look into the layout of a building and how it was built. Steve Noon also uses cross-section illustrations where you can look into a building or ship and see its 'insides' versus its 'outsides', another important conceptual leap and skill for a child. Noon's Story of the Titanic is regrettably out of print but A Port Through Time and his A City Through Time are both very good.

There are many good books that capture the idea of a journey, starting from A and getting to Z. While there may or may not be a map in the narrative, the story itself gets across the idea of moving through landscape with features that can be observed. Books of this nature might include Make Way for Ducklings, Scuffy the Tugboat and Paul Revere's Ride at the picture book level; Adam of the Road, Minn of the Mississippi and The Incredible Journey at the Independent Reader level; and The Travels of Marco Polo and The Voyage of the Beagle for Young Adults.

There are a number stories which help children with changing their perspective (visually and in terms of narrative) on an object or an issue. Flat Stanley is a story (Stanley is squashed flat by a bulletin board opening up all sorts of challenges and opportunities for him) in which comprehending the difference between two and three dimensions is critical to the narrative and particularly pertinent to maps.

There's a Map on My Lap!, Me on the Map, Are We There Yet, Daddy? are three books that introduce young readers to the rudiments of map reading.

Then there are stories in which maps are a crucial element of the narrative or plot and are frequently part of the illustrations as well. Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island is archetypal. Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt and The Patchwork Path are a couple of others.

Many books of fiction or fantasy are of such imaginative power that a whole new world is created and one builds up a mental map of that additional or alternative reality. Frequently, if illustrated, there are maps of this world in the book or on the endpapers. I have in mind here The Hobbit, Swallows and Amazons, Shardik (Out of Print), The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe which would all fall into this category.

Finally, there are of course Atlases. Huge numbers of them and with a surprising variance in styles. As a child, I loved sitting with the huge adult atlas spread out across my knees, my eyes exploring the remoter spots of the Earth. I was never taken with simplified atlases designed for children. I wanted full cartographical caffeine. Your child might prefer simpler or more focused maps or smaller more physically manageable versions.

For you cartogrophiles out there - Take a look at this truly fascinating site, Strange Maps, where you can find the most incredible representations of reality.

Let us know your recommendations for books about or pivoting on maps.

Picture Books

Make Way for Ducklings written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey Highly Recommended

A City Through Time written and illustrated by Steve Noon Highly Recommended

Central Park Serenade by Anonymous Recommended

Scuffy the Tugboat by Gertrude Crampton and illustrated by Gergely Tibor Recommended

Where's Wally? written and illustrated by Martin Handford Recommended

Paul Revere's Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and illustrated by Ted Rand Recommended

Arctic Lights, Arctic Nights written by Debra Miller and illustrated by Jon Van Zale Recommended

A Port Through Time written and illustrated by Steve Noon Recommended

Traveling Man written and illustrated by James Rumford Recommended

This Is Ireland written and illustrated by M. Sasek Recommended

This Is London written and illustrated by M. Sasek Recommended

This Is Paris written and illustrated by M. Sasek Recommended

This Is Venice written and illustrated by M. Sasek Recommended

My Map Book written and illustrated by Sara Fanelli Suggested

The Adventures of Marco Polo written and illustrated by Russell Freedman Suggested

Under New York by Linda Oatman High and illustrated by Robert Rayevsky Suggested

Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by James Ransome Suggested

See the City: The Journey of Manhattan Unfurled written and illustrated by Matteo Pericoli Suggested

The Travels of Benjamin of Tudela: Through Three Continents in the Twelfth Century written and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz Suggested

The Ancient Near East written and illustrated by Rebecca Stefoff Suggested

Me On The Map written and illustrated by Joan Sweeney Suggested

Are We There Yet, Daddy? written and illustrated by Virginia Walters Suggested

Independent Reader

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis and illustrated by Pauline Baynes Highly Recommended

Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne and illustrated by E.H. Shepard Highly Recommended

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson and illustrated by N.C. Wyeth Highly Recommended

The Hobbit, or There and Back Again by J.R.R. Tolkien and illustrated by Alan Lee Highly Recommended

National Geographic Family Reference Atlas by Anonymous Recommended

The Kingfisher Children's Atlas by Anonymous Recommended

Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown Recommended

The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford and Carl Burger Recommended

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame and illustrated by E.H. Shepard Recommended

Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray and illustrated by Robert Lawson Recommended

Minn of the Mississippi by Holling C. Holling Recommended

Paddle to the Sea by Holling C. Holling Recommended

Looking Down by Steve Jenkins Recommended

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg Recommended

Castle by David Macaulay Recommended

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome Recommended

Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne Recommended

Around The World In A Hundred Years; From Henry The Navigator To Magellan by Jean Fritz and illustrated by Anthony Bacon Venti Suggested

There's a Map on My Lap! by Tish Rabe Suggested

The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem Van Loon Suggested

Maps: Getting from Here to There written and illustrated by Henry Weiss Suggested

Young Adult

National Geographic Atlas of the World by Anonymous Recommended

The Penguin Atlas of World History by Hermann Kinder Recommended

Revenge of the Whale: The True Story of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick Recommended

Longitude by Dava Sobel Recommended

How the States Got Their Shapes by Mark Stein Recommended

The Historical Atlas of World War II by Alexander Swanston Recommendation

DK State-by-State Atlas by Anonymous Suggested

DK Geography of the World by Anonymous Suggested

United States Atlas for Young Explorers by Anonymous Suggested

The Times Atlas of the World by Anonymous Suggested

Rand Mcnally Schoolhouse Children's Illustrated Atlas of the World by Anonymous Suggested

Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin Suggested

The White Nile by Alan Moorehead Suggested

The Blue Nile by Alan Moorehead Suggested

The Travels of Marco Polo by Marco Polo Suggested

Complete Atlas of the World by David Roberts Suggested

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