Guide puts some fun back in geography


May 14, 1993|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Staff Writer

Know a child who gets the jitters just thinking about geography? Have I got a book for you.

"Where on Earth: A Geografunny Guide to the Globe," by Paul Rosenthal, illustrated by Marc Rosenthal (Knopf, $11), is listed for ages 8-12, but children will have a hard time wresting it from any adult who happens to start leafing through it.

Chapter 2 begins: "You can't hear the Horn of Africa, no matter how closely you listen." Later in the chapter, Liberia is introduced as the only African state below the Sahara that was never subjected to colonial rule: "Liberia stood out proudly like a welcome French fry on a plate of Brussels sprouts."

Paul and Marc Rosenthal are brothers ("always have been," says the blurb on the back of the book) and they share a wonderfully wacky worldview. Paul is a writer and museum consultant who is used to explaining science, history and art. Marc is an illustrator whose irreverent cartoons appear regularly in Time magazine.

Together, they hook the reader with humor. In describing the Great Plains, Paul writes: "This is where they grow the 'amber waves of grain' you've heard so much about. (We're still looking for the 'purple mountain majesties.')"

Marc accompanies that with a sketch showing what lies between the Rockies and the Appalachians: ranch land, ranch homes and a bottle of ranch dressing.

In between lots of fascinating facts, the author slips in advice. It's easy to remember there are seven continents because important things are always grouped in sevens, like dwarfs. Also, "If your teacher says that each kid in the class has to choose one continent to write a report about, and you want to write a really short report, Antarctica is the continent to select." He then proceeds to teach readers plenty about scientific research going on at the South Pole, including the study of the hole in the ozone layer.

History, religion, anthropology, biology, geology -- they're all cleverly disguised in this book, which belongs on every family's reference shelf. Better yet, put it where it will be easy to find: stacked with the magazines in the bathroom.

* Folks who don't approve of reading materials in the john probably will prefer atlases with a more traditional approach. A new one worth checking out is "The Kingfisher Reference Atlas: An A-Z Guide to the Countries of the World" by Brian Williams, with cartographic consultant Keith Lye (Kingfisher, $19.95, all ages).

Instead of dividing the world into seven chapters, one for each continent, this atlas lists each country alphabetically, which often makes them easier to find. It does make them harder to find in relation to therest of the world, however. Each entry has an inset map showing the country surrounded by its closest neighbors. But seeing Madagascar floating off the coast of Mozambique doesn't help a reader get her bearings unless she knows that Mozambique is on the east coast of Africa.

There are plenty of pluses, however, including bar charts of the top imports and exports of each country and fever charts showing its population trend and annual rainfall. Just right for the USA Today set.

Another helpful feature is a list of former names of countries (Siam for Thailand, Dutch Guiana for Suriname, Burma for Myanmar). Fresh off the presses, this atlas includes Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina under the heading "Former Yugoslavia" and points out that among industries, "tourism was important until civil war broke out." You don't say.

* For beginners, there's the "Macmillan First Atlas" written and designed by Nicola Wright, Tony Potter, Dee Turner and Christine Wilson, illustrated by Lyn Mitchell (Macmillan, $12.95, ages 4-8).

Its maps are very basic, surrounded by cartoons that kids can browse through, picking up factoids along the way, such as: You can tell where an elephant is from by the shape of its ear. African elephants' ears are like the outline of that continent, while Asian elephants' ears are shaped like India.

* "The Reader's Digest Children's World Atlas" (Reader's Digest $20, ages 8-12) relies on plenty of excellent photos, often at the expense of facts. It also devotes lots of space to the United States and Europe. Germany, France and Italy each get two-page spreads. By contrast, Africa gets short shrift. The continent is sliced into three chunks -- northern, central and southern -- with little detail on any of the countries.

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