Picture Books and Primary Sources: Lines, Bars and Circles: How William Playfair Invented Graphs by Helaine Becker and Marie-Eve Tremblay

Lines, Bars and Circles

There are certainly historically based picture books about inventions that I’ve read before, but none may have surprised me more than Helaine Becker’s Lines, Bars and Circles. I had never attributed the creation of the line, bar, and circle graphs to a single person, that person being William Playfair. After reading the book, I couldn’t wait to find some of Playfair’s graphs. After finding the graphs, I can’t wait to use them with the picture book with my students.

Bringin the Book into the Classroom

Lines, Bars and Circles is as much of a look at William Playfair’s life as it is an introduction to different graphs. Becker’s book gives an overview of the major parts of all of these graphs. Playfair’s work reveals more complex elements that aren’t seen in all graphs but don’t impede their readability. 

While a math connection is obvious, my immediate wondering was what grade level would I suggest using this book and primary sources. Pairing the two resources together could work well in upper-elementary or middle school. While the approach may be different for each, it could make a not-often-seen collaboration between social studies and math.

Line chart, 1786

The book works well as a response to the question, “Have you ever thought about who invented line graphs?” While the answer is likely, “No,” the picture book gives an entertaining and informative look at Playfair and his enlightened decision. It also likely leaves students wanting to see one of Playfair’s graphs.

Introducing the Primary Sources

Revealing one or more of the related primary sources can be done with several activities.

  • Students new to a particular type of graph can look for its critical parts. Referencing the book for those parts, for example, the X and Y axis in a line graph can encourage comparisons between Tremblay’s illustrations and Playfair’s original work.
  • Students more familiar with a particular type of graph can try to read Plairfair’s graphs. This gives them practice making meaning from graphical information with little context.
  • More advanced graph readers and creators may be challenged by identifying additional features in Playfair’s graphs. Additional labels in many of his line graphs help to explain the data shown. Arches over columns in a bar graph group quarter centuries into century groupings for easier viewing. 
  • At its most advanced level, students may also be able to apply some of Playfair’s techniques into their own graphs. Working on an understanding of making data easier to understand, these approaches can help students show an even deeper understanding of any set of numerical data.

Value of Wheat

Line, bar, and circle graphs are used to make understanding information easier. Pairing Becker’s picture book (illustrated by Marie-Eve Tremblay) with Playfair’s original work can actually do the same when it comes to students developing a deeper understanding of graphically illustrating data. More of Playfair’s work can be found in my curated set of primary sources that accompany this book.


Author: Tom Bober

Tom Bober is a school librarian at RM Captain Elementary, 2018 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress, and author of the upcoming book Elementary Educator’s Guide to Primary Sources: Strategies for Teaching. He writes the Picture Books and Primary Sources posts for AASL’s KQ blog and has written articles for several publications. Tom also presents at conferences, runs workshops, and gives webinars to promote the use primary sources in student learning. He began his career as an elementary classroom teacher, was also an educational technologist, and has spent the last nine years as a school librarian.

Categories: Blog Topics, Collection Development, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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