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Tea and beer? It must be Britain

The Eyewitness Atlas of the World, Dorling Kindersley Pounds 14.99 0 7513 51261. The Oceans Atlas, By Anita Ganeri and Luciano Corbella. 0 7513 51148. The Bird Atlas, By Barbara Taylor and Richard Orr. 0 7513 50680 Dorling Kindersley, Pounds 10.99 each, Wayland Atlas of the World.Revised Edition, Wayland Pounds 10.99. 0 7502 11210.

Michael Storm attempts to navigate the world with a batch of new atlases. The Eyewitness Atlas arrived with a considerable flourish. It claims "a three-dimensional representation of the earth's surface which has a clarity and an accuracy never before seen in print." Though the decorative illustrations are unusually lavish (most double-page spreads incorporate about 20 photographs and line drawings), the basic structure of the atlas is conventional. Spreads on planetary behaviour, earth structure, landforms, climatevegetation, population, political geography, are followed by more than 50 regional maps (three on South America, 16 on Europe).

These very ambitious layouts are not entirely successful. The combination of computer-generated 3-D modelling, enhanced by hill-shading and coloured to give an impression of vegetation and land use affects both legibility and consistency. Mountain localities find themselves in deep shadow. Land use tinting ensures that the Appalachians figure as a bright green swathe, while the Mojave desert shares a colour with the mountains of Vermont. Liberally-distributed symbols tend to jostle for attention. Kansas (two by four inches) accommodates 26 assorted symbols as well as rivers, railways and 17 place names. Barbados is virtually obliterated by six symbols, two inscriptions, a flag and population data. Relatively empty areas of the globe are quite thickly populated with symbols; a scatter of natty blue anchors locates seven "major ports" in Alaska and the Aleutians.

The Eyewitness Atlas pages are extraordinarily busy; the priority is clearly the number and diversity of "informative facts". A price is paid for this. Pictures of a cup of tea and a pint of beer, with captions about national drinks, help to account for the rather modest scale of the single UK map. The atlas takes the concept of the general-purpose, heavily-laden regional map to - and beyond - its limit. A plethora of tiny images and "fact-bites" devours the space that might have accommodated larger, clearer maps, including some thematic ones - population, relief, land use and so on. The middle-school group will undoubtedly find this diverting browsing material, but "the development of map skills" is not really well-served by the coffee-table format.

Two other atlases from the same publisher demonstrate the effectiveness of the thematic approach. The Oceans Atlas is a genuine trail-blazer, providing an unusually comprehensive treatment of the three-quarters of the planet beyond the land masses. Oceanic distributions are merely the starting point for explorations of structure and submarine topography, currents, tides, life forms. Spectacular graphics include "drained" ocean floors and underwater panoramas of the Hawaiian range and the Emperor Seamounts. The final six spreads (of 30) deal with human use and abuse of the oceans.

The Oceans Atlas deserves a niche in secondary school libraries, while the very attractive Bird Atlas has a range extending into the upper primary years, with a clear and friendly text.

In design terms, Richard Orr's striking paintings dominate. The maps are simple, small-scale affairs, modestly featuring as background or margin. Scales might usefully have been more varied, with a few closer looks at notable ornithological locations. The emphasis on the rare and exotic might also have been complemented by material on the common habitats of buildings and gardens.

The Wayland Atlas is a well-established no-nonsense collection of admirably uncluttered maps, now completely up-dated. Absence of any encyclopaedic ambitions (not a flag or a picture in sight) means that 73 of its 90 pages are devoted to simple thematic and regional maps, which do not attempt to blend physical and political material. This results in an absence of "noise", that will help to build confidence in the young user (eight to 14-year-olds). Notably solidly bound, this atlas's natural habitat is the classroom desk rather than the library display.

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