ILLUSTRATION FEATURE Maps in Children's Fiction


A map is an adventure waiting to happen. Alison Padley-Woods explores the use of maps in children’s fiction and asks Kiran Millwood Hargrave, author of A Girl of Ink and Stars, why they are so important.

Maps. Just the word conjures up new places and exciting worlds. They’re nothing new in children’s stories, but right now, when COVID-19 is limiting travel, when we expect to be hemmed in and locked down any moment, perhaps a map and a journey into the realms of the imagination is the best route to follow. 

In fact, had it not been for confinement, we may never have known one of the most famous maps in children’s literature – Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson,
cover illustration by Jon Contino,
published by Puffin Books

Stevenson drew the map in 1881 to fire the imagination of his 12-year-old stepson Lloyd Osbourne on a rainy holiday in Scotland. Stuck indoors in the bad weather, he sketched an intricate coastline and dotted it with smuggler’s coves. He filled it with woods and mountains and marked it with places that warned of danger: Skeleton Island, Spye-Glass Hill and Graves. On that two-dimensional piece of paper, Stevenson built a landscape of the mind where he conjured a story of galleons and pirates, a place where generations of children have set out with Jim Hawkins on a quest for buried treasure.

So, does the map always inspire the story as it did for Robert Louis Stevenson? We asked Kiran Millwood Hargrave about A Girl of Ink and Stars, her debut novel published in 2016 by Chicken House Books

A Girl of Ink & Stars, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave,
cover illustration by Helen Crawford-White,
published by Chicken House Books

The book, which won the 2017 Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize and the British Book Awards Children’s Book of the Year, has been described as a children’s classic. It tells the story of a cartographer’s daughter. But did the setting, the Isle of Joya, come first and what inspired it? Kiran explains:

Joya absolutely came first. I'm not a skilled artist in any respect, but when I decided it was time to stop talking about writing a book and actually do it, the blank page was too daunting, so it felt easier to draw a rough outline and cover it in danger. The seed of the entire plot came from deciding my main character would need to journey from one end of the island to the other. The rest was like going on an adventure myself, following Isabella and seeing where the island took her. I took huge inspiration from the Canary Islands, particularly Tenerife and La Gomera. All of the settings in the book, from the steeply raked port town of Gomera to the underground tunnels, are based on real places I visited on my travels there. 

Map of Joya by Helen Crawford-White,
from A Girl of Ink & Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave,
published by Chicken House Books

Story maps, like tapestries, stitch together forests, roads, rivers and places, and tell tales about the people who made them as well as the setting it was made for. Tolkien’s map of Middle Earth for The Lord of the Rings is said to be based on the landscape around Birmingham where he moved aged four. The Hundred Acre Wood, AA Milne’s map in Winnie the Pooh, has its roots in Ashdown Forest where Milne played as a child, and C S Lewis’s Narnia is thought to be inspired by an ancient Italian town he read about whilst studying Latin authors. 

Winnie the Pooh, The Complete Collection by AA Milne, 
illustrated by EH Shepard,
published by Methuen Books

Maps are so often born from memories and mingle fact with fiction. Many combine myth, legend and hearsay as in Kiran’s A Girl of Ink and Stars. Ultimately, they open gateways into other worlds and catapult us out of reality into something new and exciting. 

Maps help us find our way. They allow us to make sense of places in this world, and in the fictional worlds they represent where characters and readers alike may be lost without them. But story maps are not just for the reader to understand the setting. In A Girl of Ink and Stars, Isabella takes the map as she sets off to the Forbidden Territories to find her friend. As with Harry Potter’s magical Marauder’s Map and Tolkien’s map of Middle Earth, given to Bilbo by Gandalf at the end of The Hobbit, the map is a dramatic device that shapes the narrative and is essential to the plot. 

J R R Tolkien's map of Middle Earth, for The Lord of the Rings,
published by Grafton

So, is it a coincidence that many stories with maps become classics and enjoy such longevity? What do maps add to stories and why are they so important in children’s fiction? Kiran explains:

Children are the perfect readers, in that they won't persevere on with a story that doesn't appeal to them, and once a child falls in love with your book, they carry it with them for the rest of their lives. Maps are a tangible way of holding a whole world, a whole story in your mind, and for that reason they hold such excitement and possibility for a child. You can imagine yourself wandering off the path of the story and having your own adventure. My favourite maps in children's fiction are Hundred Acre Wood, and more recently Cressida Cowell's gorgeous works from the The Wizards of Once


The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell, published by Hodder Children's Books

Cartography is an exact business. Grid maps drawn to scale, dissected by lines and contours, where everything is found via co-ordinates, attempt to make an accurate account of reality. But how accurate are they? Reality is difficult to capture and science tells us our world is constantly evolving. Almost as soon as the ink has dried something will change. 

Map of Moomin Valley by Tove Jansson's for 
Finn Family Moomintroll,
published by Puffin

Story maps embrace this fluidity.  Characters cannot be pinned to locations as we see with Tove Jansson's Moomin Valley map for Finn Family Moomintroll. Instead the illustration hints at things. It is  not always detailed, not to scale, not measured and it doesn't deal with perimeters. Why is this? Kiran explains:

For the same reason I always prefer covers to not show the details of a character's face - so children can imagine themselves into the story, place their feet on the map, their face on the character, and fill in the gaps themselves. There is a lot to be said for allowing imagination more room in a book - it's also why my endings are often ambiguous. I want my readers to imagine life going on.

Fictional maps focus on what’s important to their protagonist: the dangers, the what ifs, the adventure. They hook the reader in and instead of questioning the missing detail, children’s minds dive down and explore beyond the illustration. 

So, did Kiran provide a rough sketch to the illustrator, Helen Crawford-White to show how the Isle of Joya should look, and how did she feel about her representation? 

My husband Tom de Freston is an artist, and he drew the original map of Joya (well, after my terrible attempt!). Helen then used this as the basis for her own interpretation, and I think it's iconic. I love it, and it has superimposed itself over my own map that I held in my head for years.

A Secret of Bird and Bone by Kiran Millwood Hargrave,
illustrated by Helen Crawford-White,
published by Chicken House Books

Holding maps in our heads – it’s what many of us do. Not just of real places, but of places we’ve visited in books. Many successful children’s books don’t have a map and readers may prefer to conjure up their own from vividly drawn worlds and imaginary landscapes. Kiran’s new book, The Secret of Bird and Bone, has no map, but scattered across its pages are painterly graphics of birds, feathers, leaves and bone. Step by step, a trail is laid, and the world of Italy springs up: the medieval city of Sienna, the rolling Tuscan hills, olive groves, rivers and red brick lanes tumbling every way. 

A Secret of Bird and Bone, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, 
illustrated by Helen Crawford-White,
published by Chicken House Books

Whatever form they take, maps are wonderful things that enhance our lives. Armed with a map we can scale mountains and traverse the world. And travel changes us. ‘I’m going to find myself,’ is so often said by people embarking on a long journey. And so it is with characters in fiction. By the end of the story they are certain to be altered by their experience. Journeys offer new perspectives and new insights, and story book worlds, once visited, remain within us. In confinement, let's take off and explore as many as possible.

Header photo: Kiran Millwood Hargrave


Kiran Millwood Hargrave:

Chicken House Books

Alison Padley-Woods is Words & Pictures' Deputy Illustration Features Editor. Alison used to work for Condé Nast’s Brides magazine. She now writes middle grade fiction and picture books and has been shortlisted and longlisted for several prizes including The Times/Chicken House Competition, Bath Children’s Novel Award and Writing Magazine’s Picture Book Prize.

1 comment:

  1. nice to see you getting some recognition Alison. Interesting subject


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