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Around the World in Eighty* Ways

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The world is a big place. For children, especially. Their world is their immediate surroundings. Some are lucky to go on holidays. Some are even luckier to go abroad and experience different cultures, landscapes, architecture, languages… But how do we convey the sheer size, variety, and complex geography and history of our planet? Especially to those who are unaware of so much.

There is a vast range of maps and atlases available in the children’s book market. And even though the shape and contours of the land do not change, each atlas is a different lens with which to see the world. Satisfying curious minds, spring-boarding them to other areas of interest or diving them deeper into something else. There is an atlas for everyone, even someone who hates maps – although I do not believe anyone actually does. What atlases and maps are out there? Why are they important? And how can they benefit children?

There will be those who just love maps. Finding out where places are in the world and positioning themselves amongst the other 7 billion people. Political maps, relief maps, and road maps are wonderful (I’ll get onto those later). But atlases can be as different as the countries they show. Some show us information that we already know and others entirely new information. The Atlas of Amazing Architecture, for example, reminds me that there is so much more out there than most of us are aware of. A typical book on architecture might focus on the world’s most famous buildings: the Great Pyramids, Empire State Building, Eiffel Tower etc… But in this book, we learn about Norwegian medieval stave churches, Brighton Pavillion, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, and the Sea Ranch in California. I guarantee there will be new information in here for everyone who does not already have specialist knowledge.

It makes me think we should constantly be asking ourselves, what haven’t we seen? What aren’t we seeing in books? And whose job is it to make the hidden parts of this planet visible? 

I have discovered, when researching, that an atlas does not have to contain any maps. They can be a collection of diagrams and illustrations too, which is exactly what The Atlas of Amazing Architecture is. Africa, Amazing, Africa has some illustrated maps giving context to the text. But it is the writing that acts as the map, describing the topography of each unique country, as well as the people and history. This book, however, does not call itself an Atlas. Comparisons between books, their titles, and their content would make for some interesting conversations. Especially if you add into the mix dictionary definitions, etymology, and authorial/editorial decisions.

Some of the books from our Maps and Atlases collection

Tapping into children’s interests and what they already know is important too. Many children are experts on football. So much so that they, like football-loving adults, have opinions on playing styles, team selection, refereeing decisions, and even the politics involved. Football Atlas: A Journey Across the World and onto the Pitch is perfect for experts and newbies. Again, it’s more about the information on the subject than the maps, of which there are few. However, what makes this work is that football is both global, and something that can unite so many of us. It would be harder to do this with other sports quite so comprehensively.

Nonfiction books like these not only connect people to their own interests, but to their culture and heritage too. Plus connections to other cultures and histories. Making connections is something we want for children in their learning. Exploration leads to discovery, and “a young child’s mind is fed through exploration” (Owens). Maps are a great way to facilitate this in areas such as communication and language, physical, personal, social, and emotional. Maps are also massively cross-curricular including literacy and numeracy. You name a subject, and maps can be involved in the learning in some way or another. A report on mapping in early years education is available on the Ordnance Survey website. It is well worth a read.

Books with an early years audience include Vivian French’s (soon to be published) Maps From Anna to Zane. Mixing fiction and nonfiction, this picture book for children 4-7 introduces different kinds of maps and cartographic terminology such as ’scale’. Taking map reading skills a step further is Mad For Geography: Maps for ages 7+. Again, it adds a story element about two keen geographers (Gea and Tom). It is also highly interactive with quizzes and activities to encourage children to be active learners while reading. They will be introduced to new vocabulary, different kinds of maps, and to coordinates.

Children will make more connections in their learning using maps than you can find on the London Underground (which has an iconic one). They are also a useful way to explain current events and international politics. When the world then starts to make more sense, we start to understand it, and the people on it too. Prisoners of Geography: Our World Explained in 12 Simple Maps (2019) is another lens to see the world. The maps explaining Eastern Europe are particularly relevant at the moment. So too are the maps of the South China Sea and the Middle East. Pair this book with a history atlas for some in-depth learning.

Geography and history are strongly linked. A visual history, many will agree, is much more enjoyable, and understandable, than a solid page of text. Readers also need to see where places are in relation to other cities, oceans, countries etc… The Atlas of Great Journeys plots the routes of explorers and travelers and scientists throughout history. The maps put into perspective some truly epic journeys, but only really focus on the path of each traveler. Plotting the routes on more detailed, or modern, maps would be an interesting activity. It would show children the dangers and landscapes each individual, or team, faced.

All these different lenses are wonderful, but what about “proper” maps? The Ordnance Survey is an institution, and there is something magical about pouring over Landranger and Explorer maps. Finding the symbols in the legends is like a treasure hunt. Finding out where you have been or where you are going gives you a sense of insider secret knowledge. Reading a map can be like reading the future.

Some internal spreads from our Maps and Atlases collection

The Ordnance Survey Kids Adventure Book is ideal for KS2+ children wanting to learn about maps and explore the landscape safely. And let us not forget a staple of any school, the Collins Primary Atlas, or Collins School Atlas. They will always have a place as traditional maps. Apart from these types, the flux of geographical books I’ve mentioned all have illustrated maps rather than the cartographic ones we are used to. They are all beautiful in their unique designs. However, there will be those who want to focus on geographical features, roads and landmarks.

The great thing about them is the universal suitability of the content. The Times Concise World Atlas had an aura for me as a child. Even though someone else had to lift it from the bookcase. More manageable was the A to Z in the car glove box. In no way less fascinating though. Seeing which roads connected to others, placing towns and villages in relation to each other, and working out which routes I would take to each one.

The last atlases I want to mention are The Big Picture Atlas (Usborne) and the Life-the-Flap Atlas (Lonely Planet). They are perhaps more explorative than the others. Combining maps and pictures and facts of what can be found (today) in each place. The Lift-the-Flap Atlas is particularly clever with its language, infusing a guidebook-like style similar to its adult guides. “Visit temples galore in the ancient city of Bagan”, the use of imperative verbs gives the reader a sense of possibility and adventure.

Visualisation is a vital part of learning. Even when planning a story children are taught to draw story maps. They give context and help let us know where we are. But maps also show us where we have been and where we are going, both literally and metaphorically. They are both works of art and tools. They are for the curious and adventurous, for those who are quiet, or for those leading the way.

* Unsubstantiated

Listen again…

Tim Marshall talks to Nikki Gamble In The Reading Corner about his book Prisoners of Geography