16th June 2000 at 01:00
MAPPING EARTHFORMS: Islands, Deserts, Lakes, Oceans and Seas, Rivers, Mountains. By Catherine Chambers. Heinemann pound;9.99 each.

These bright 32-page hardbacks aim to provide a key stage 2 introduction to physical geography. Each book follows a sequence which looks at how the features were formed, what they look like, their characteristic plants and animals. The focus is not exclusively physical - a local human society, generally "traditional" (Inuit for oceans, Australian Aboriginals for deserts, and so on), is also briefly described. Each account concludes with a brief discussion of how these environments are changing.

This formula is a well-tried one. It provides a context for the deployment of some striking colour photographs, introduces important new vocabulary, and offers a more flexible, less intimidating and more accessible route into geography than the more substantial junior encyclopaedias.

The generic organisation of the series, however, has set the author some challenging tasks. Discussion of mountains or lakes, in this format and at this level, inevitably generates much generalisation, and a tendency to list: "Lake can be very small. Many small lakes are found high in the mountains or very low down on river flood plains. Others are long and thin..." This, I fear, may not prove irresistibly readable to nine-year-olds.

The books are stronger on informing than explaining. The scope means there isn't enough room to explain what coral is, or how an artesian basin works. The point at which simplification becomes misleading is reached and, at times, passed: we should stop building dams (they stop water from reaching oceans) and we should build coastal defences (towns and villages are falling over the cliffs). Continental climates are characterised as "cold and wet".

The series title is a tad misleading. Maps are actually fairly sparse (around five per title) and not central to the narrative. Several have no scales. The text often attempts to describe spatial arrangements (bays, seas, straits, oceans) verbally, without any graphical assistance. My hunch is that readers in this age group may think this is attractive browsing material, but would find it more satisfying to study a specific river or an individual island.

Michael Storm

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