Mapping change

5th May 1995 at 01:00
MY FIRST ATLAS. By Bill Boyle. Dorling Kindersley Pounds 7.99. 0 7513 5201 2. THE KINGFISHER FIRST PICTURE ATLAS. By Antony Mason. Kingfisher Pounds 8.99. 1 85697 217 8.

COLLINS PICTURE ATLAS OF THE WORLD. By Nicholas Harris. HarperCollins Pounds 6.99. 0 00 196571 9. Michael Storm on atlases for children and adults

Perhaps the most telling indication of the post national curriculum re-establishment of global geography in primary programmes is the very substantial interest and investment in children's atlases. These three enter a crowded and competitive field. As their titles imply, the Dorling Kindersley and Kingfisher publications are aimed at key stage 1. Both atlases feature useful new ideas. My First Atlas takes 10 of its 45 large pages to explain what maps do and what atlases are for. I particularly liked its careful and colourful demonstration of how countries fit into continents; something that intrigues but often confuses the youngest children.

Another good idea is the "journey line" which appears on each map; this recognises that children often find it easier to envisage distance in terms of travelling time rather than as a linear measurement. A single red journey line appears on each map, and a pictorial panel reveals that Lisbon to Athens would take you two and a quarter days (non-stop?) by car, five and a half hours by plane. The standardisation of this device might result in the child imagining that the little family saloon with suitcases on top could traverse Antarctica in two days, but so long as they don't attempt the trip we needn't worry. The atlas is not so successful with keys; the "explaining" page (a journey to school) confusingly deploys individual pictures in the "key" instead of standardised icons for houses, shops, etc.

The Kingfisher First Picture Atlas, specifying a "six and over" readership, also uses some of its 40 pages to try to establish how maps work. It gives priority to scale (presented in orthodox fashion) and co-ordinates. A simple letternumber grid makes the index usable, especially as the maps are notably "clean" and uncluttered. They come in pairs: a bright political map (with scale) for each continent is followed by a picture map (animals, plants, resources) whose pale background tints set off the delicate little drawings effectively.

All three atlases sprinkle pictures across their maps, as well as around the margins. This is an early-atlas convention that might usefully be re-examined. As the Kingfisher atlas thoughtfully explains, "It is not possible to show every spot where, for example, tigers or factories are found. There will be tigers and factories in other places besides those marked". Kingfisher's "grown up" straight political maps of coloured countries provide a useful balance to the picture maps and score over the much "noisier" Dorling Kindersley maps with their big detailed vignettes (cattle rancher, Colosseum, Maori wood carver) superimposed on obtrusive backgrounds (forests, mountains, and so on).

The Collins Picture Atlas aimed at eight plus, has 80 well-filled pages and makes very little contribution to the growth of map-understanding. There are no keys, no grids, and not all the 36 maps have a scale. The atlas claims to give "a real flavour of each country described", but flags, population data, capital cities, languages hardly achieve this. The non-map content consists of lists, descriptive paragraphs redolent of everyone's memories of school geography ("crops include wheat, maize, soya beans and sugar beet in northern and central parts"). It has an essentially touristic perspective.

Turkey is represented by a whirling dervish and Cappadocian cave-dwellers. Apart from six political maps, locational information struggles against very bold "land use" patterning, including a novel but distracting mosaic presumably (no key) denoting cultivated areas. This paperback atlas is strongly competitive on price, but is more for browsers than users.

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