`Games to last the journey, skills to last a lifetime.’ This is how the Automobile Association and publishers Hamish Hamilton describe their new joint publication, the AA Junior Atlas of Britain. We visited the AA’s Cartographic Department in Basingstoke to find the story behind the book.
The Atlas is the first to be designed especially for children, and the AA are keen to point out that it is a real road atlas, professionally produced by professional cartographers. In addition to 30 pages of large colourful maps, there are numerous games and activities and pages of information about how a map is made, how it should be read, planning a route, roads and traffic – and much more. The result is an Atlas which should keep children amused on even the longest journey – and a teaching aid which will prove invaluable in the classroom.
The idea for a Junior Atlas first came to Ralph Robbins, Editor-in-Chief at AA Publications, about seven years ago. He realised that `many people did not know how to use maps, and that navigation skills did not seem to be taught in schools. And yet there were enormous numbers of children travelling by road, all of whom would need to know how to read a road map when they grew up.’ He therefore employed a market research company to find out how a Junior Atlas might best remedy this gap. The researchers talked to teachers, parents and children, asking them what they would like to see in the book, and showing them visuals of the proposed maps and information pages.
The research was revealing. First, everyone agreed that it was a real problem keeping children amused on long car journeys. So the numerous games and. activities, and colourfully illustrated pages, were conceived. Teachers stressed that the games had to be activity-oriented and linked to the information presented – so route-planning puzzles and games such as Silhouettes (which introduces children to the grid system) were devised.
Children showed themselves to be particularly interested in decoding vehicle marks and number plates, and they liked those games which could be played over and over again. Above all, it became clear that they enjoyed the challenge and responsibility of route-planning and navigating. One boy of eight said he wanted an Atlas which would enable him `to read it better than my mum and dad so when we go on a journey I won’t get fed up.’ (Interestingly enough, many adults seemed to underestimate children’s capabilities when it came to map-reading, though the children were keen to navigate and often demonstrated considerable skill in doing so.)
The maps, too, were specially adapted with children’s wants and needs in mind. Clarity was the first priority, and so these were drawn on a scale of 1 inch to 8 miles, and some of the smaller roads were left out. For the first time, the counties were picked out in different colours so that county boundaries were visible at a glance. Specially drawn symbols for places to visit were also added. These were selected with children’s interests in mind and included wildlife parks, zoos, and lighthouses open to the public.
Armed with this research, and certain they were well on the way to meeting an urgent need, the AA decided they needed the expert help and guidance of an established children’s books publisher. They therefore approached Hamish Hamilton who, with the AA, ensured that the text and presentation were at the correct level for children – simple, but not patronising – and that the marketing was absolutely right.
And so, after years of research and months of preparing maps, text, photographs and pictures, we have an Atlas which is practical, informative and fun. Simple enough to be understood by children of eight years plus, it will be useful to parents and teachers – at home, at school and, of course, in the car. At £4.95, it’s good as a gift and as a classroom tool.
AA Junior Atlas of Britain, AA and Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 11041 6, £4.95.