6 Atlases Worth Drooling Over

Books with maps in them are the best kind of books. I still recall the maps from My Father’s Dragon, Moominland, Redwall, and (of course) anything by Tolkien. Some of them are hanging on my wall at home, directly opposite a large map of the (real) world. But a step better than books with maps are books of maps.

When I was six years old I made my first atlas. It was a small collection of maps I had traced from our world atlas consisting only of coastlines, country boarders, and country names. If I remember rightly, it was a grand total of seven pages long — just enough space for each continent to make an appearance. At the time, I could barely read most of the words I was tracing. After tracing for several days (or maybe an hour, time’s tricky when you’re six) I took my pages, stapled them together with all the care an elementary school child can muster, and presented it, beaming, to my dad for father’s day. Thus began my life-long love affair with Atlases.

Growing up, I spent hours making maps of places both real and imagined. I would never have guessed that this pastime would culminate in a project like WonderMaps, although I think my parents suspected as much. They were always happy to provide atlases and maps for me to peruse. We had some wonderful reference atlases and a few good historical atlases on hand. However, it wasn’t until I was writing North Star Geography that I discovered how many different kinds of atlases there are. In this post, I’d like to introduce you to a few of my favorite kinds of atlases in hopes that you, like my parents, can use them to foster your child’s love of geography, and really their whole love of learning.

I’ll assume you already know how to pick an atlas that’s right for you child and that you already have good modern reference atlas.

Historical Atlases

A modern reference atlas’ job is to show you where things are. Historical Atlases show you where things were. Best of luck finding Babylon, the U.S.S.R., or the Holy Roman Empire without one. Some of the best historical atlases (like the Then and Now Bible Atlas) show you modern and historical data side-by-side or with overlays for easy comparison. While some atlases are ambitious enough to encompass all of human history (RM’s Historical Atlas of the World comes to mind), they tend to sacrifice depth for breadth. More detailed atlases usually focus in on a specific a location (I’ve got a lovely Atlas of Irish History on my shelf), a time period (say, an Atlas of the Middle Ages), or even an event like WWII (Maps of War).  Bible Atlases would be an important sub-category of historical atlases. Most secular publishers gloss over or ignore biblical history, so having a good biblical reference is crucial for both ancient history and devotional study. There’s much more to be said about historical atlases than I have space for here, but if you only pick up one additional geography resource as a result of this article, start with a historical atlas.

Atlas of the Ocean

There’s a reason the earth is referred to as the “Blue Planet” — and it’s not because Gaia has been feeling glum lately. Only a third of the earth’s surface is dry land. However, the sad truth is that many atlases show all bodies of water as a superficial blue, with little to no mention of what you’ll find beneath the surface. There’s so much to learn about the ocean, and an Ocean Atlas is a great place to start. A good Ocean Atlas will unveil the ocean’s topography, incredible biodiversity, currents and circulation systems, light zones, ecosystems, and its impact on humanity (and vice versa). To inspire your future marine biologist, submariner, or explorer,  DK’s Ocean Atlas is a good place to start.

Space Atlas

We often see maps of the world, but what about maps of other worlds, like Mars or Saturn? National Geographic’s Space Atlas is just the thing for explorers who want to learn the seas of the moon, trace the storm systems of Jupiter, examine the orbits of comets, and see our solar system in scale amongst the stars. While not written from a Christian perspective, you’d be hard pressed not to hear the heavens proclaiming the glory of God and the skies declaring the work of his hands as you peruse these pages.

Statistical Atlases

The Atlas of the Real World is one of my favorite geeky atlases. It uses statistics to distort map areas is really interesting ways. For example, the two maps below (from pages 207-208) show the number of households per country on the left (note how large East Asia is), and housing prices on the right (note how large Europe and North America are). You can see the actual statistics on the bottom half of the page along with some interesting commentary. The hundreds of maps in this book on all kinds of topics are just fascinating. You can preview the book on the author’s website.

Households per Country — © Copyright Sasi Group (University of Sheffield) and Mark Newman (University of Michigan)

Housing Prices by Country — © Copyright Sasi Group (University of Sheffield) and Mark Newman (University of Michigan)

Government Atlases

The government publishes many different atlases. For instance, the US Department of Agriculture publishes an Agricultural Atlas that gives maps of food production, livestock, farms, and economic data. The US Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,  has some wonderful maps and satellite imagery freely available, as well as online interactive mapping tools which are great for looking at topography, hydrology, vegetation, and ecology. In fact, many different departments offer map collections or online map tools for all kinds of themes, such as the Census Bureau and the US Forest Service. There’s also the free National Map (and the discontinued National Atlas). Some of these require some more advanced data interpretation skills or specialized software, but poke around anyway. You’ll be surprised at the data you can find —  and it’s all free!

True Names

Another one of my favorite niche atlases is the Atlas of True Names. These lovely maps show place names according to the name’s original definition or root etymology. Instead of location Philadelphia, you’ll see Sibling Love; Michigan becomes Land of the Big Lake, and the South China Sea is shown as the South Riceland Sea. There’s one map of the USA and another World map. While not essential, they do shed some entertaining light on where names come from.

These are just a very few of the many wonderful specialty atlases out there. (I won’t even touch on the meta-atlas The Atlas of Atlases!) But I hope you get the idea that there’s an atlas for almost every need, and many of them are much easier to find than you’d think.

If you want, you can see me geeking out about atlas on the Bright Ideas Press Google Hangout:

Tyler Hogan is the head of curriculum development at Bright Ideas Press. He lives in Dover, Delaware, with his wife, Helen, and their adorable daughters, Kaylee, Avalon, and Sierra. He and Helen are both homeschool graduates and now homeschooling parents. Tyler has spoken, performed, and taught classes around the world on homeschooling, geography, the arts, and worldview . He also works as the operations manager for Grace for Dover, a nonprofit Christian community development organization. In his “spare time,” he teaches homeschool co-op classes, reads good books, drinks tea, overanalyzes movies, and writes about himself in the third person. He has a BA in theatre from Belhaven University and always enjoys the adventure of lifelong learning.

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