Map Reading: Maps in Kids’ Books
Orienteering in Imaginative Space
“I don’t know if you have ever seen a map of a person’s mind. Doctors sometimes draw maps of other parts of you, and your own map can become intensely interesting, but catch them trying to draw a map of a child’s mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time. There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island; for the Neverland is always more or less and island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose.” — James Barrie, “Peter Pan”
I am a sucker for books with maps. I agree with Robert Louis Stevenson who said, “I am told there are people who do not care for maps, but I find it hard to believe.” Tell me about Peter Pan’s Neverland, and I want to know where the Mermaids’ Lagoon is in relation to Tiger Lily’s Camp. If the Emerald City is at the center of the Land of Oz, what lies to the north and the south?
For me, a map is like the hypnotist’s pocket-watch swinging before my eyes. It is an invitation to daydream. This is this way it is in Stevenson’s Treasure Island when Jim Hawkins hypnotically contemplates the parchment that belonged to the pirate Billy Bones: “I brooded by the hour over the map, all the details of which I well remembered. Sitting by the fire in the housekeeper’s room, I approached that island in my fancy from every possible direction; I explored every acre of its surface; I climbed a thousand times to that tall hill they call the Spy-glass, and from the top enjoyed the most wonderful and changing prospects. Sometimes the isle was thick with savages, with whom we fought, sometimes full of dangerous animals that hunted us.”
The map also serves another important purpose in Treasure Island: it is a device Stevenson uses for storytelling. The reader can return to it again and again to point to various locales and trace events as they unfold. Here is where the Hispaniola anchors, just off Skeleton Island. There is the stockade where the gentlemen take refuge to fight off attacks by the pirates, who have stupidly camped near the adjoining and pestilential swamp which is over there. Here is where Ben Gunn’s coracle can be found near White Rock; and when Jim takes it and travels out to the Hispaniola to cut the ship free from its moorings, he drifts this way, along the western side of the island, past the Cape of Woods while Jim struggles with Israel Hands — finally killing him and then beaching the Hispaniola at North Inlet over there at the top of the map. And here, of course, are three crosses that mark where the treasure is buried.
A map makes a story easier to visualize — but in a special way. The issue is more where than what. The reader who consults Ernest Shephard’s map in The Wind in the Willows, for example, is not concerned to identify which trees grow in the Wild Woods (whether they are oaks or elms, say) but more interested in the location of the Wild Woods in relation to Rat’s riverside home and Badger’s underground retreat. What we are talking about is almost content-less visualizing or, rather, visualizing in an entirely architectural or spatial way. It is like that kind of understanding we employ to find our way to the bathroom in a darkened house in the middle of the night.
But even more remarkable is the ability of young people to imagine spatial configurations that (unlike the bathroom in a darkened house) have no actual counterpart in the real world but are entirely unreal. Many of us have talked with bright kids who are expert in computer games and who have taken the slightest textual clues and the most rudimentary graphics to comprehend the entire architecture of a game: here is where the trapdoors are that lead to different floors, the rooms with trolls to avoid, the hiding places for weapons that will give the player more power, etc. This kind of visualizing is very much like reading. There really is very little difference between imagining the entirely invented landscape of a computer game and the equally unreal geography of Winnie the Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood.
Moreover, it’s not a very big step from finding our way around the Hundred Acre Wood to tracking our way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Maps in children’s books model existential orienteering but in imaginative space. And there’s a special kind of pleasure that accompanies this. To understand that, consider the uneasy feeling you have when waking in a hotel room in an unfamiliar place, not knowing where you are, suffering a kind of vertigo until you “get your bearings.” Maps in children’s books work in the opposite direction and provide the pleasure evoked when the jigsaw-puzzle pieces all fit together and a pattern is revealed, when the dots in a puzzle are connected by lines to reveal a figure, or when you “get your bearings” and things suddenly makes sense.
A version of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (January 2009).
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