Books for Children / Presents of things past: History & Geography

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The Independent Culture
DOES your child locate Manchester in Manchuria, believe Queen Victoria ruled the Romans and think that historical dates are bits of squidgy fruit past their best? Not so many years ago children had to learn their history and geography by rote. Now the rote has gone - so much the better, most people will say - but so has the learning. Many parents admire the project work their children bring home but find themselves wishing there was rather more of a conceptual framework - some sense, for example, of where Britain actually is in the world in relation to anywhere else. Publishers are recognising that global, and historical, consciousness arrives fitfully and in stages, and needs to be coaxed gently into life.

Jolly pictures - Dutch windmills amid tulip fields, trumpeting Tibetan monks - are the hallmarks of Philip's First Picture Atlas (Reed Books pounds 6.99) but there are also clear and cheerful maps, a pithy text and intelligent use of symbols. The atlas is designed for 6-10 year-olds. Above it come Philip's Children's Atlas ( pounds 8.99), for 7- to 12-year-olds, and Philip's Family World Atlas ( pounds 4.99), for parents and children: a well-designed series that represents excellent overall value.

For children of eight and above, Oxford University Press has produced Planet Earth ( pounds 12.99), with superb photographs and illlustrations but a text which looks better suited to the top end of the age range. Also from Oxford are the Insights guides, on Energy and Earth, Air and Atoms, good-value hardbacks at pounds 7.99 each and with some exciting pull-out pictures and imaginative page design.

Generally, however, the Oxford books seem a little lacking in immediacy - a quality to be found in abundance in less lavish productions such as Kingfisher's Stars and Planets - A Visual Factfinder and the Puffin Factfinders on Countries. These cost pounds 7.99 and pounds 3.99 respectively, good value for books where the pictures crowd together so cheerily they seem to fall out of the page. Both are ideal for quizzes (as merry a method of learning as any). Kingfisher has performed a similar visual fact-finding service in World History ( pounds 7.99), a marvellous kaleidoscope of images and a small miracle of compression. If you decide to limit the number of improving books you hand out this Christmas, make this your choice for history. Close runners-up - for different reasons - would be The Picture History of Great Inventors by Gillian Clements (Studio Editions pounds 9.95), and How Would You Survive As An Ancient Egyptian (Watts pounds 8.99), designed by David Salariya, deviser of the X-Ray Picture Books.

The former combines a witty but perceptive picture chronology of world history with highly graphic portraits of the men behind everyday objects - Lazlo Biro, Gottlieb Daimler, Elisha Otis et al. The latter is realistic in-depth history for young people at, or at least very near, its best. Its layout borrows from a number of sources - the quiz show, the 'you were there' docu-drama, the psychology of exploration - and also boasts a 'time spiral', a diagrammatic whirl from 1985 back to the death of Tutankhamun.

Another imaginative exercise in history is Hamlyn's Daily Life in a Victorian House ( pounds 8.95), by Laura Wilson, which borrows images from the Gunnersbury Park and other museums to re-create a sense of bygone domestic routine - which for many people is what life, if not history, is all about.