Map What You Read: Making Literature Trips with Google Drive

Book Mapping

In 2013, I attended a “Google Educational Summit” while I was working in Tokyo. During that conference, I learned about using Google Maps in the classroom, and the thing that stuck with me is its application to the study of literature.

My time teaching overseas made me aware of the importance of connecting books that we read to the real places that are described. While it might seem like authors describe things perfectly clearly, the fact is that everyone actually relies on their “schema”, or their own personal experience, to picture what they read. The further our life experience is from the text we are reading, the harder it is to picture. That’s why they say, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

I don’t remember spending a lot of time talking about the backgrounds or settings of the texts we read when I was in school. Although overall, I think we are a little bit better about it now, I still don’t think the topic gets the attention it deserves.

There’s no question that people enjoy connecting fiction and real life. There are many hand drawn maps that you can find for purchase online. There are place maps that show homes of authors or settings of fictional books. There are maps of both fiction and nonfiction books that map journeys taken, and there are even more maps, such as the cover image for this post, that are drawn of completely imaginary places.

While a lot of us have gotten in the habit of using driving apps everyday, have you ever thought of using a mapping app to trace places in books? It’s easier than you think and can show you a lot about what you’re reading.

What Does a Good Online Literary Map Look Like?

I spent some time looking around to see what online literary maps I could find. The results I got weren’t too exciting. I can’t tell you how many times I was disappointed by discovering that the site is subscription only (in the case of newspapers). Then some just didn’t work at all, I don’t know why. The most disappointing ones, however, contains loads of information, I think, but are set up in such a strange way that I wasn’t interested in messing with it…and if I’m not interested in something book related, it’s really not working.

Here are two that I like:

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The Obsessively Detailed Map of American Literature’s Most Epic Road Trips from the website Atlas Obscura

Note that these trips are all real…they came from nonfiction books.

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Then there is this wonderful map from the Brooklyn Public Library showing literary places in Brooklyn. The map is instinctive, searchable, and free. When you click on a pin a quote from the original book pops up; I love that the author of the map let the authors of the texts speak for themselves.

The screenshot above shows pins related to one of my favorites, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Literary Map/Brooklyn Public Library

Literary Maps are not just fun; they are good for you.

Reading researchers think that visualizing as we read is one of the most important parts of reading comprehension. If you can’t picture it, it’s probably hard to be able to put it all together in your mind.

You also might think that you are getting more from what you’re reading than you really are; your brain fills in a lot with its own “prior information”, and if your experience is different from the author’s, you may have difficulty.

That’s one reason it can be hard to read books from significantly different cultures or time periods.

Actually sitting down to map a literary journey, whether fictional or real, can help you really put the whole thing together.

Now, I’m a literacy (ELA/English) specialist, but when I was doing curriculum, I talked to the Secondary social studies teachers every year to find out what they needed the Primary school to work on, and they always said 2 things:

  1. Map Skills

    So the benefit here is obvious.

    And imagining characters (or real people) in various locales helps make the of maps better because the drawings get translated into actual things, if that makes sense.

  2. Orientation in time and place

    Believe it or not, because it seems so obvious, kids need to know where they are. That’s why they usually do the day, date, and weather first thing each morning in early elementary school classes. But it’s also important to know where you are in your city, state/province, country, and continent.

    You also need to know where you are in time, and to understand that, you need to know how OTHER time periods relate to where we are now.

    Then it stands to reason that you want to also understand where other people are, where they were, and where they will be in the future.

    An example from my own life is that, when I was in school, there was a country called the USSR. That country no longer exists. Now there is Russia and a bunch of smaller countries that I really have to study. Once I did one of those online quizzes where you have to fill in the map. I was confident because I’ve traveled to so many countries, but guess what? There are now a whole bunch that didn’t exist when I was in school (USSR), and at the time, I hadn’t traveled there.

    So you can see, if I wanted to read anything that is set in these countries since 1989, I’m going to need to look at a map.

    For more about the importance of visualization, try this very readable study by Jeffery Wilhelm, You Gotta’ BE the Book. It’s my favorite.


Creating a Collaboration Friendly Literary Map

I followed this post, which I found through a Google Search. It worked reasonably well, except for a couple of pointers that I added below.

Probably the difference between me and the author of this post is that fact that she probably uses Google Drive a lot more than I do, so you and I, dear reader, probably have that in common.

If you are a teacher, do what I used to do: before you do a lesson on this, find out which kids in your class are good at it, and get them to help you. You will probably be surprised.

Google Sheets & My Maps – Connect Student Literature with Geography

What Lois Learned About Mapmaking:

  1. “My maps” is different than the normal “Google Maps” you probably use for trip planning. Follow the directions on the post. They are reasonably up to date.

  2. You have to be in your “Google Drive” to find “My Maps”. If you are on the blank Google page, ensure that you are logged in, and then click on the little grid.

  3. I’m not sure if this is the best way (so tell me if you have a better way), but to find the location to enter into Google sheets, I also opened up a regular Google Map to find and copy the locations I wanted. So I had three tabs going: Google Maps, Google Sheets, and My Maps.

  4. If you are having trouble seeing enough detail in the screen shots in the “Waffle Bytes” post, use the “Zoom in” feature on Chrome. You will find it on the drop-down menu under “View” on the menu bar.

Initial Results:

I played around with the information from two books I recently read. Here are the results:

This is a screenshot of the spreadsheet I put together on Google Sheets.

This is a screenshot of the spreadsheet I put together on Google Sheets.

And this is the map I made showing the locations of two recent books, A Good Provider is One Who Leaves and Moll Flanders .

And this is the map I made showing the locations of two recent books, A Good Provider is One Who Leaves and Moll Flanders.

The process is a little frustrating and slow because I had to generate a specific address for each pin even though I was mostly interested in documenting the cities.

For Moll Flanders, I had to get really creative since the only information I had to go on for her time in Virginia is which river she was near and which colony she was in.

She states that she first arrived in Virginia at the mouth of the York River, and then when she comes back to Virginia, later in the book, she lived near the Potomac River and later bought a plantation on the Maryland side of the river. Because I live in the area, I had a rough idea of which part of modern Virginia she’s talking about. Although I didn’t try to look up 17th century colony boundaries, I doubt they have changed much because these particular boundaries are defined by the rivers.

If I wanted to make a comparison between these books, you can see right away the difference between Moll’s adventures in Moll Flanders and Rosalie Comodas’ in A Good Provider. While Moll goes back and forth between the “New World” and the “Old World” in the late 17th century, Comodas goes from the Far East, to the Middle East, and to Texas. When I see it mapped out like that, the comparative distances are stunning.

To be honest, before I did this, I hadn’t really thought much about the fact that both books (one fiction and one nonfiction) are both about migration. D’uh. But anyway, the mapping sorted me out quickly.

More Fun with Maps

As you play around with the maps, you can do different things. You can insert different icons into the pin designs, you can change colors, and you can add lines.

You can also change the type of map you use, so you could show topography, for example.

Or you can use satellite view and see what the areas actually look like, at least now.

You can also decide if you want to use one spreadsheet to enter all of the information, or if you want to use multiple ones.

So for a class or a book club, you could use different spreadsheets to individually map different books and then create one with everything for a year, for example, to see the range of your reading.

What is the point of making a literary map?

First of all, mapping your reading is fantastic for inferencing and reading for detail. For example, I wouldn’t have been able to figure out as closely as I did where Moll arrived in Virginia if the names of the rivers hadn’t been mentioned. I was able to pinpoint some of her historic locations in London by place names that remain even though the original districts are gone, including the “Mint” and Newgate Prison.

I’m not great at remembering specific details, so just the exercise of doing the mapping was good for me.

Mapping your reading also helps you be able to picture the places in the book…using the mapping features, you can see locations, but using satellite imagery, you can literally see what’s currently in the spot you are examining.

Reading researchers believe that readers do not progress if they can’t picture what they read, so using maps also helps with that.

Of course, it’s great for map skills, as mentioned.

And at the end of the day, it’s pretty fun! In a nerdy way of course, but isn’t everything? 🙂

About the Cover Photo

You can find a traditional map of the places in every famous book there is, whether the setting is real or imaginary. Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BPL / CC BY . 1920.(https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

You can find a traditional map of the places in every famous book there is, whether the setting is real or imaginary.

Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BPL / CC BY . 1920.(https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

You Tell Us

I’m a complete newbie at this, so please add your tips for using mapping apps and ideas for classes and book clubs below!