May 31, 2007


The Ultimate Interactive Atlas of the World. By Elaine Jackson. Maps created by Digital Wisdom Publishing Ltd. Scholastic. $17.99.

      Here’s a (++++) idea with a (+++) execution. Children today – even very young ones – are so computer-literate that they may have little use for a traditional world atlas. They may never even have seen one. The Ultimate Interactive Atlas of the World is aimed squarely at young people who are accustomed to glitz and to something to do, not just look at, at all times. It is an accurate, spiral-bound atlas that offers a smattering of facts about each part of the world; and it features a variety of things to fold, pull and turn, in an attempt to hold the interest of kids ages seven and up while helping them absorb knowledge about our Earth.

      Good strategy; so-so tactics. The front-of-book map, designed to give a sort-of-three-dimensional geological look at the world, is underwhelming. The facts about the world are well done and well compressed, but they do not make up the first part of the book, which is about maps and how they are made. This is actually more interesting than the information later in the book, but it blurs rather than expands the idea of what an atlas is.

      The interactive elements, which are the really new things here, are of variable interest and quality. A pull tab that lets you create a globe from sections – showing how difficult it is to make flat maps of our spherical planet – is fascinating. A pull tab on time zones gives a clear graphic demonstration of how the zones work, although the explanation will likely be too complicated for younger readers. And a tab that you turn to compare polar ice in 1980 and 2005 is a very effective visualization of the effects of climate change. But a similar tab designed to show hurricane rotation does not reveal very much, and quite a few of the interactive elements add little or nothing to the book: a fold-up world map showing the continents on top and, when folded, their populations; a small bound-in booklet about American wildlife; foldouts on the Channel Tunnel and the Olympics; and so on. Even when a special element does add useful information – for instance, you pull a tab to show how coral-atoll formation occurs – it is unlikely to hold young readers’ attention for long or make them want to return repeatedly to the book.

      Atlases are, above all, reference works, which means they can stay on the shelf indefinitely (subject to political and geophysical upheavals, of course) and be consulted again and again when someone needs information. The Ultimate Interactive Atlas of the World will not be very useful on this basis: it does present lots of basic facts, but when kids need information for research papers, they will find more of it online than here, and at least as easily. Nor does this book really succeed as a work to be read for pleasure: the interactive elements just won’t remain interesting for very much time, and it’s hard to say how well they will hold up long-term if they get used too often. The idea of updating the old atlas format to appeal to younger readers is a very good one, and this book certainly takes some steps in the right direction, but “ultimate” it emphatically is not.

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