May 18, 2017

Lines, Bars and Circles: How William Playfair Invented Graphs

Written by Helaine Becker
Illustrated by Marie-Ève Tremblay
Kids Can Press
978-1-77138-570-1
36 pp.
Ages 6-9
April 2017

I love a good picture book biography!  It's an amazing format for telling a person's story without getting bogged down in the minutiae of historical details and trivia.  These books are great introductions and always provide relevant details and references in the appendices for those readers who want to dig a little deeper.  Helaine Becker, who has tackled all genres for young people, is especially well-versed in non-fiction writing including science books, math books and activity books like her award-winning Secret Agent Y.O.U. and Boredom Blasters, and she is no less skilled in telling the story of William Playfair.
From Lines, Bars and Circles: How William Playfair Invented Graphs 
by Helaine Becker 
illus. by Marie-Ève Tremblay
William Playfair, born in 1759 Scotland, liked to dream and play pranks but, after his father died and his older brother John took over his schooling, William was brought up on the scientific method and become an excellent mathematician.  At age 14, he accepted employment with the inventor Andrew Meikle where he learned to draw plans and make different machines.  But Will still sought the big dreams of riches, fame and glory and became the assistant to another inventor and engineer, James Watt.  If Will wanted to be somewhere where he could think outside the box and create and problem-solve, he found it in the workshop of James Watt.  Problem was that Will was too much in his own head to do the work his employer required of him and decided it was best to go out on his own.

Though he developed an effective silversmithing machine, Will's business acumen was negligible and this and multiple, subsequent businesses failed. So he wrote books about history, politics and economics to earn money.  When he didn't have sufficient information to complete a chart, he created a visual representation of the data so that he might extrapolate it from that available, and the first line graph, showing changes in export and imports over time, was born. He was so pleased by its efficacy he took it a step further and grouped information into chunks, thereby developing a bar graph based on countries importing and exporting goods.

Though awarded a French royal permit from King Louise XVI, the French Revolution had him scurrying home and exploring new ways to represent numbers in picture form, leading to the design of the pie chart.  Unfortunately because of his poor track record, Will's ideas were never accepted in his life time (he died in 1823) as valuable.  Thankfully, acceptance did come in time, allowing his ideas for graphs to convey numerical data in a bold and innovative way to be used throughout the world.
From Lines, Bars and Circles: How William Playfair Invented Graphs 
by Helaine Becker 
illus. by Marie-Ève Tremblay
Helaine Becker tells William Playfair's story with the upbeat air necessary for innovation and discovery, though she doesn't leave out the weaknesses in his life's drama.  It must have been difficult to decide what to share from his biography, but Helaine Becker has chosen wisely to share with readers that information which supports the basis for William Playfair's inventiveness and its value without dragging in tedious details of his life.  There's a playful tone to her text and Marie-Ève Tremblay's lively illustrations respect that.  Readers will enjoy seeing a larger-than-life William Playfair stepping out of the roof of his home, heading out to follow his dreams. And cooking up a pie chart while wearing an apron and oven mitt.  Even King Louis XVI losing his head is depicted lightheartedly!
From Lines, Bars and Circles: How William Playfair Invented Graphs 
by Helaine Becker 
illus. by Marie-Ève Tremblay
Though Lines, Bars and Graphs is the story of William Playfair and the development of graphs, Helaine Becker and Marie-Ève Tremblay make it into a whimsical story of thinking outside the box and persevering, even when failure seems to be the norm and dreams appear to be dashed, providing good life lessons for William Playfair and everyone.

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