Navigating HiStory: Storytelling and the Illustrated Map

Maps have long been the purview of the field of illustration, from imaginative maps illustrating fantastical journeys, to informative maps that guide tourists through their destinations. As an illustrator, I’ve had a long fascination with maps, illustrating maps of amusement parks as a kid, and also appreciating how illustrations of maps contribute to storytelling. The maps at the beginning of the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings give necessary grounding to the complicated geographies of these tales. Similarly, the world maps used in games such as Risk and Diplomacy also provide a way of inserting us into the story of the game. Maps give us a place in a story, incorporating us into the plot of the character, with the past road behind us and the future road ahead. Author and designer William Lidwell describes this concept, which he calls “invisibility,” in his book “Universal Principles of Design.” Invisibility is when one becomes so engrossed in the story, you become a part of it. With Google Maps, you pick up the little yellow man, an icon of yourself, and place yourself, your point of view, into a map, and into the story.

Maps guide us not only through the stories of others, but also through the stories of ourselves. While maps can inspire and change how we view and navigate spaces, they can also access other elements of storytelling. Navigating space within in a map is akin to the concept of navigating the setting in a story. We are the characters, and, through invisibility, we are placed within the context of the map, the story being told. But there are other elements of storytelling, and other ways for maps to show these elements. How could a map show the time-related elements of a plot? How could a dry, two-dimensional map illustrate the feelings that build to the element of mood in a story? Maps have already been shown to do these things by a number of exceptional illustrators. Maps can do more than record spatial way-finding, but also guide us through temporal, emotional, and spiritual journeys.

Maps as Spatial

When I first moved to Atlanta in 2010, I, being a late adopter, did not yet have a smart phone and went to a corner store to buy a real, true, multi-fold map of the city. I used that map a LOT for the first few years I lived here, and thinking of that map now, it showed a very different city than Atlanta now is. More than that though, is that, at the time, the locations on that map showed meaningless information thrown together in an impossible jumble of names, dots, and lines. Now, each of those locations shares layers of stories and history of my time living here. A good illustrated map starts to show the stories behind the spaces.

Illustrator Alice Feagan uses a whimsical cut-paper style to illustrate the stories within maps, bringing life and energy to her alma mater of UNC-Chapel Hill, and for her client work, illustrating Bryn Mawr College and Grand Teton National Park. Feagan distorts the perspective of each object in her illustrations to help draw the viewer into the story, creating an element of invisibility, and uses diagonals to create motion, moving the viewer through the plot.

Alice Feagan
Alice Feagan
Alice Feagan

Even her illustrated biography on her website functions like a map, taking her clients through the journey of her story.

Alice Feagan

Illustrator Tom Wooley also has an impressive collection of maps that use design to tell the story of the places he illustrates, adding mood and story through unique color palettes, giving viewers a taste for locations including Hanoi, Vietnam, Yorkshire in the UK, and New York City.

Tom Woolley
Tom Woolley
Tom Woolley

In 2011, illustrator Nate Padavick founded a website They Draw & Travel, the internet’s largest collection of illustrated travel maps created by artists from around the world. I am a long-time follower of this site and admire the variety of maps it encompasses, both for aesthetic qualities and the creative interpretations of the term “map.” The maps are truly international, not just in subject matter but also the origins of the creators. Illustrator Tammy Chew from Singapore guides us through the sites on Iceland’s Ring Road (I especially like the detail of her compass rose as a snowflake).

Jessica McGuirl’s map reminds us of the absentee voting deadlines by state.

Jessica McGuirl

Alyssa Gonzales created a map close to my heart from my grad school days, the places to get coffee in Savannah, GA. (In fact, I could use a map like this for every city I visit!)

Alyssa Gonzales

These illustrators, amongst other contemporary illustrators, show unique ways to use design to contribute to the storytelling possibilities of maps.

Maps as Temporal

Image copyright Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Inc… encycloPAEDia… very fancy.

Another map that has stuck with me over time was one hanging on the wall of my middle school science classroom. Attempting to find an image roughly resembling what I remembered revealed this is called a “fossil succession.” This map did not only show space, in fact, it really showed only a small section of horizontal space, but instead used vertical space to reveal time. The map showed vertical cross-sections of layers of the earth, beginning at the top with the fossils of man and mammals, and moving down to the layer beneath it, showed the detritus of the age of the dinosaurs. Below this, the leftovers of the Paleozoic eras, and eventually made its way down to the earliest life forms on Earth. While it was showing vertical space, the story it was telling was striking because of its description of time.

A temporally based subset of illustration that has long recognized the connection between storytelling, maps, and time is that of comics. Award winning graphic novelist and comic artist Alison Bechdel writes: “I feel like cartoons function for me very much like maps, in that they take a complex or confusing three-dimensional reality and iron it out into a much more manageable two-dimensional version.” Bechdel’s break-out graphic novel Fun Home includes a number of illustrated maps that show her emotional connection to physical geography, and physical geographies relation to time. One map from her novel, which describes her relationship with her closeted gay father and her experiences growing up in a funeral home, shows how a very condensed geography can hold so much emotional weight.

Alison Bechdel

Bechdel also was fascinated with the maps included in fantasy tales, and recreates the map in the book The Wind in the Willows. The invisibility of this landscape was so strong for her, she was able to draw parallels between the geography of this map and the area where she grew up.

One graphic novel that is a particularly unique example of this connection of maps and time is the book “Here” by Richard McGuire. In this book, the author takes us… nowhere. The entire book exists entirely in the exact same location, from the exact same perspective. It starts with a living room in 2014.

All images from the book Here by Richard McGuire

But then the book shows us where the real journey is. Upon turning the first page, you are suddenly transferred back fifty years to the same room in 1957.

“Huh, that’s neat,” you think, creating the expectation of perhaps showing a generational difference, or a family history. The book then brings us to 1942…

And then ahead to 2007, showing slight differences in paint, wallpaper, and furniture…

But then the book throws its first curveball, showing the same space in 1623, an empty forest, covered in snow.

Overlays are added to show literal windows in time to other eras. We see the patterns and cycles of time. The same Halloween many years apart.

The motherhood that took place in one room.

And the book throws you dizzyingly through time. Back to 8000 BC…

then to 1775. Eventually, we reach the biggest leap of all, the book takes us into the future…

A wrinkly, cat-like animal from 10,175. Water pouring in the window in 2111, an eerie reference to climate change.

This book is a striking example of the temporal potential of maps.

Maps as Emotional

From The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

As Paula Scher uses cartographic form to connect viewer’s experiences to visual representations of geography, author Norton Juster of the Phantom Tollbooth thus uses a beautifully rendered map of Milo’s journey into The Lands Beyond and the Kingdom of Wisdom. In this map, Juster explores the hills and valleys of the mind and emotions on a fantastical journey through the Doldrums, the Sea of Knowledge, the Foothills of Confusion, and, of course, jumping to the Isle of Conclusions.

Nicole Javorsky writes about this map as part of a series from Bloomberg CityLab entitled “The Maps That Make Us.” In her piece, Javorsky describes how when she was a child, Juster’s book, “encouraged me to search for possibility and complexity in the world, and reframed my particular passion for art and writing as assets, instead of pushing them away to gain the acceptance of my peers.” However, later in her life, when suffering from depression, Javorsky returned to the book, especially the fancifully illustrated map of Milo’s subconscious. She writes of the map that “The Lands Beyond represent the twists and turns of the labyrinths of one’s mind, on a search for wisdom.” Javorsky placed herself in Milo’s story, remembering the lessons he learned as he navigated the map, how Expectations can keep us from moving forward, and how the Forest of Sight can teach to shift one’s perspective. Javorsky continues: “That day, as I gripped tightly onto my favorite book from childhood, something shifted in me, too. I remembered the person I’d been in my younger years: passionate about learning, curious about the world, unabashedly creative… Maybe I needed to look at myself from alternative points of view. If I lingered here in the place in my mind where failures were all I could see, my life would never change.” Same as Alison Bechdel, Javorsky too saw how maps could help iron out the complicated three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional path, showing her how to move forward.

When faced with the pandemic this year, Nate Padavick’s site “They Draw and Travel” faced somewhat of a dilemma: no one was traveling, so what were they to draw about. But Padavick recognized that journeys were still occurring, perhaps this time though just on a smaller scale. Padavick created a call for submissions entitled “Mapping This Moment,” capturing the unique expeditions artists have taken during the coronavirus crisis, both emotional and microspatial.

Laney Yehl’s “Map of Social Distancing” is reminiscent of the Phantom Tollbooth map, leading the wanderer through the “Lagoon of Loneliness,” the “Quicksand of Questioning,” and the “Dunes of Doubt.” (Also of note is the “Grocery Isle.”)

Laney Yehl

Tammy Chew’s map is of this last remaining tourist destination, wondering, as I did, where the flour has all gone to.

Tammy Chew

Ellie Shipman’s map returns us to an emotional journey, asking how we are to find peace in isolation.

Ellie Shipman

Radha Ramachandran’s map illustrates the feeling of yearning for adventure and travel we are all feeling in quarantine.

Radha Ramachandran

The maps from this series help to show how our journeys are not always through space, but through ourselves.

Maps as Storytelling

In 2013, inspired by They Draw and Travel, I took on my own challenge of mapping a story through space and time. Throughout my childhood, my family would embark on the 2.5 hour car ride from Janesville, Wisconsin to visit my grandparents in Maquoketa, Iowa, although often we would take an alternate route to the city of Bellevue, where my great aunt and uncle lived. This route took us down Iowa’s Highway 52, adjacent to the Mississippi River. Every time we took this route, my dad would launch into stories about Aunt Amanda, Elmer and Elsie, the old Hueneke farm, and all of the points along the road that formed the memories of his childhood. Most of my grandmother’s family lived and farmed along this road for over a hundred years, and this oral storytelling seemed to be some of the last remnants of this history. When thinking this family history should be recorded, I thought the perfect format for it was no other than a map.

Catherine A. Moore… hey, that’s me!

The map shows the northeast corner of Iowa, driving down from Dubuque along the Mississippi river, eventually bringing you to the city of Bellevue, number 16 on the map.

(See, you can tell which direction is north because of the “corn-pass rose”… ha, get it? The map’s in Iowa, after all.)

Bellevue was one of the original white settlements in Iowa, and, while it sounds like a French settlement from the name, it was actually originally known as Bell’s View or Bell View. Bellevue was a frequent stopping off point for river boats, and had a factory that built boats designed for speed, some of the first motorboats, as well as a pearl button factory. The buttons were made from clamshells, and today, if you dredge from the edge of the river, you’ll find clamshells with tiny holes in them. The area also holds much Native American history. When I was a kid, I remember visiting the Indian mounds in Bellevue State Park. My great uncles also collected scores of arrowheads from plowing the fields of the farm where they grew up, which is the white house pictured on the left and number 13 on the map. My grandmother framed the arrowheads at one point in shadowboxes to give to my dad and his brothers.

My dad generously took a picture of the arrowheads for me. In his closet.

At number 5 you see the gruesomely named village of Tete de Morts, or Heads of Death, which was settled by immigrants from Luxembourg. The name was supposedly derived from a Native American battle at the site. Later, the village was called St. Donatus, for the local Catholic church. The village is part of the historic register due its containing the only surviving collection of mid-19th century Southern or Lowland Luxembourg vernacular stone architecture. Pictured on the right, across the valley from St. Donatus Catholic church, and number 6 on the map, is St. John’s Lutheran Church, as it stands today.

One of the founding members was John Diedrich (JD) Felderman, who was in his 50s when he came to the United States from Niedersachsen, Germany in 1852, after serving in Napoleon’s army. Two years later, in 1854, a Lutheran pastor named Dr. Sigmund Fritschel, was said to have heard about some German Lutherans living in this area, and hoped to preach to them. An anecdote from descendant George Fritschel’s essay Aus den Tagen der Väter tells the story of how JD Felderman wrote Fritschel a letter to “stay away” from St. Donatus. When Fritschel did arrive, Felderman, a “stately old man” answered the door, asking: “Didn’t you get my letter?” Felderman explained they were wary of “fake Lutherans” coming around trying to “convert” them to, oh the horror, Methodism! Felderman then gave Fritschel a quiz of his Lutheran beliefs surrounding baptism and Holy Communion, and then rejoiced that he’d found a, quote, “real” Lutheran. When the current church was built circa 1919, JD Felderman’s grandson, JC Felderman, made sure St. John’s was taller and had one more steeple than the Catholic church.

Church founder and wicked beard sporter JD Felderman, pictured with St. John’s Lutheran Church, built in 1919 to be taller and one more steeple than the Catholic church. My ancestors weren’t petty people at all. Not at all.

JD Felderman, his wife Anna, his children, and much of the Hueneke line, my grandmother’s paternal ancestors, are all buried at St. John’s Lutheran Church. Note the illustrated detail of the telephone pole on the left, its cross alluding the strong Lutheran faith of all of these ancestors.

JC Felderman had many children including my great-grandmother, my grandmother Lois’ mother, Edna Felderman. I never met her and remember only two of her many siblings, my great-great-aunts Ethel and Luella. “Aunt Lou” lived to be 92, despite my memories of her smoking like a chimney whenever we went to visit her in her later life in her small apartment in Bellevue. My dad recalls how she would make cookies with chicken fat, breaking away from the usual family staple of baking with lard. Aunt Lou had a life-sized plaster statue of a dog at her house that I liked to play with, as my dad had played with it as a child. We still have it. Lou lived with her other unmarried siblings at number 12 on the map.

My great-grandmother Edna is standing at top left. JC Felderman is the stately bearded fellow seated. Luella and Ethel are two of the girls with the white bows, a very different aesthetic than I remember the Aunt Lou. Photo circa 1920. Back Row, Standing, L to R,
Edna, “Oscar Arthur,” Louis, Walter, Emma, Bernice. Front Row (Seated),
Amanda, John C., Luella, Ethel, Elsie, Amelia “Emilie” Holz, Mabel

Part of the map my dad would always be sure to point out was a sharp turn in the road at number 8, where his great-uncle Edward was killed in a fog while changing a car tire in the late 1960s. Edward was the husband of my grandmother’s Aunt Amanda. Amanda’s brother “Uncle Louie,” never cared much for Edward while he was alive, but after he was killed, Louie allegedly approached the driver of the car and laid a punch on him.

At number 13, the Hueneke Homestead, my grandmother Lois grew up with her three siblings, Herb, Eldon, and Eleanor, whom I all knew. I only saw the inside of the farmhouse once in person, although I’d seen many pictures of her family posed inside of it.

My great-grandmother Edna Felderman, my great-aunt Eleanor, her husband Vernon Griebel, and my great-grandfather Herman Hueneke.
My grandmother’s brothers Eldon and Herb Hueneke. They never married, preferring the bachelor life of Iowa snake-hunting.

After marrying, my grandparents moved to a farm in Maquoketa, down highway 62, number 17 on the map, where my dad grew up, attending a one-room schoolhouse and later becoming the first person in the family to earn a college degree.

My dad, what an adorable little scamp!

Year after year we’d drive down this road and I’d hear sprinkles of these stories here and there, beginning to create layers and density of narrative, which my dad continues to research on Every few years, him and my mom attend church at St John’s and casual conversations turn into meetings with distant cousins. Last month, my dad and his brothers sold the farm and the land of the Hueneke Homestead. The last person of this generation with a connection to this time and place was my grandmother Lois. When she died in 2017, my dad commented to me, “Well, I guess we won’t have a reason to drive to Iowa anymore.”

My dad and my grandma Lois


In his new book The 99% Invisible City, author and podcaster Roman Mars reminds us that “there is a hidden world… all around you if you look closely enough.” Mars lauds historical markers and plaques for revealing the stories behind a location. He also points our attention to utility codes, the spray-painted markers noting where utility lines run under the ground. He writes that “these odd hieroglyphics… provide… ephemeral windows for [us] into the complex systems running right beneath our feet.” Maps likewise provide us with this glimpse into the underworld of stories beneath our feet, the layers of history, like my science room map or the arrowheads on my great-grandparents’ farm. Like the picture overlays from the book “Here,” finding the stories behind a place unveils the emotional weight maps can possess. Our personal recordings of the spaces meaningful to us can likewise reveal hidden stories and histories. I’ll leave you with the outro of Roman Mars’ book, in which he states: “Forgive us if it takes a little longer to get to our destination, because we are stopping to read every historical plaque along the way.”

An Iowa Sun Dog, as my grandmother told me it was called.

Citations and artist websites linked in text.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store