Tim Marshall on converting the bestselling Prisoners of Geography into a children's book
At a book signing last year, I was approached by a young woman who said she'd always loathed geography and politics at school but that after reading the first edition of Prisoners of Geography became inspired, and was now studying international relations at Bristol University. High praise indeed. And so along with the teams at Elliott & Thompson and Simon & Schuster I began to think about how we might help a wider and younger readership learn how geography influences the world we live in.
Geo-politics? For children? That might sound like a tall order. The challenge, in thinking about this new edition, was to strip the original Prisoners of Geography concepts back to basics without oversimplifying, and in that I was helped by the beautiful drawings of illustrators Grace Easton and Jessica Smith.
The two artists produced illustrations that appeal to readers of all ages, complementing and illuminating the text. For example, the page on the geography of Russia shows the shape of the flat North European Plain - a pizza-shaped wedge. The text explains that the narrowest point of the plain - between the Baltic Sea and the Carpathian Mountains - is a gap through which several armies have come to invade Russia. From a Russian perspective, the answer to this problem is to try to control the narrowest point of the wedge - in Poland. A few pages later - under "War and Peace" - there are several smaller maps and illustrations of "the gap" showing that across the decades Poland appears, changes shape, and even sometimes disappears entirely as powers swept east and west. It's much easier to see this visually, especially as a younger reader.
Saying that, I repeatedly edited and reread the written paragraphs and information boxes to make sure that concepts such as this were clear for a 10-year-old or 12-year-old, but at the same time not dumbed down. Years of writing two-minute reports for TV and radio news helped, because I'd had to work with similar principles as a journalist: brevity and clarity.
So far, the reaction to the book has been very positive. There are two recurring phrases I'm hearing from the grown-ups at signings and events. One - "Ooh, I'll be reading that myself"; and two - "Ooh, I'll be reading that with my children." These reactions seem to chime with the growing popularity of non-fiction children's books, with parents searching out books that help frame and contextualise (for themselves and their kids) a fast-paced world in which the old certainties are fracturing. There is also, perhaps, a renewed sense of wonder at just how amazing our world - and the natural world - can be. I'm thinking, for example, of Sabina Radeva's glorious On the Origin of Species and stunning large-scale books such as the Welcome to the Museum series.
This rise in children's non-fiction can only be a good thing. In an age of fake news, deep fake videos and politicised challenges to science and facts, serious but fun non-fiction books are part of the antidote.
Prisoners of Geography: Our World Explained in 12 Simple Maps by Tim Marshall, illustrated by Grace Easton and Jessica Smith, is out now (Simon & Schuster, Elliott & Thompson; £16.99).