Flick through the geography books of the Forties and Fifties and you see that the past was a very foreign country indeed. The above extract is from the invariably hilarious World of the Children. It first surfaced in 1948 and its account of the world east of Reigate abounds with smug Anglocentricity and unthinking racism. They don't make them like that any more. The old "Growing up in Lapland" style of geography was seen off in the Seventies, when physical geography knocked the old-fashioned regional variety off the map. And anyway, most publishers quite fancy a few sales in Lapland.
But physical geography, though no doubt thrilling in the field, can be pretty dry stuff on the page. Children still crave the magical tales-from- other-lands side of the subject, and most children's geography books understand this. The Government's recent shift in emphasis towards core subjects may mean that geography gets squeezed out of your child's school day. A colourful, absorbing book at home that can be hoicked out whenever a country comes up in conversation may help make up the shortfall. Kingfisher's Encyclopaedia of Lands and Peoples (pounds 25, 640pp) journeys in style through the five continents, outlining the physical features and major industries of each country before moving on to the people and history. It's extremely nicely done. Each spread is broken up with little panels and captions, but not confusingly so. It's very thorough. Each Pacific Island chain gets its own page. In Dorling Kindersley's Geography of the World (pounds 25, 300pp) Fiji is just a dot on the map. This aside, it's a shiny, pretty book. As with the Kingfisher, each country comes with a little fact panel. The differences between the statistics are striking. DK tells us that there are 60.7 million people in the Philippines; Kingfisher (published a year earlier) managed to find 65.9 million of them. Kingfisher tells us old-fashioned things such as currency and exports, but DK has fascinating snippets such as numbers of people per doctor, adult literacy and TV ownership.
There are pages of past schoolwork that stick in my mind like mud. The interior of the human eye, how a microphone works, and, of course, the ox-bow lake. So it came as a considerable shock to me to find that the ox-bow isn't in the index of either encyclopaedia. For the more physical side of life, you need the easy-to-understand Oxford A-Z of Geography (pounds 4.99, 64pp).
You will also need an atlas. These are harder to choose between. Someone has obviously decided that poring over the small print of a good, solid Times Atlas is beyond the infant mind, and publishers are falling over themselves to produce simplified maps of the world. This basically means a world with fewer places in it. These range from the pointlessly babyish to kindly attempts to break it to them gently. Kingfisher's Atlas of the World (pounds 12.99, 94pp) has a map and a page of information on each country or region. The maps are larger but no more detailed than those in the more informative Lands and Peoples encyclopaedia, so it would probably be as well to lash out the extra tenner on that and buy a proper grown- up atlas, or the Oxford School Atlas (pounds 9.99, 192pp). Dorling Kindersley's Eyewitness Atlas of the World (pounds 16.99, 160pp) is bigger and snazzier, with handy little symbols such as bunches of grapes littered over the landscape, but this leaves little room for place names. It's very attractive but it would never do as a main family atlas. If you like the DK look, the World Atlas (pounds 40, 384pp) would be a better bet. The plan is surely to make the child's world as large as possible.
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