The Britannica All New Children’s Encyclopedia, a partnership between What on Earth Books and Encyclopædia Britannica, is something of a wonder in more ways than one. Not least that it has resurrected the printed encyclopedia like the mythic phoenix rising from the ashes of digital publishing. In this review, I’ll explore some of the outstanding features and explain why I think this new volume is a game-changer.
In modern times the name Britannica is synonymous with encyclopædia. People aged 40 years+ will recall the door to door selling of the multi-volume Encyclopædia Britannica. Established in 1768 the brand had been operating for 224 years when it eventually moved away from print in 2012 to focus on a digitised product. The final edition was 32 volumes and weighed a whopping 129 pounds. That’s a considerable amount of shelf space in a family home or school library. On visits to schools, I usually ask if I can see the library and it is fairly common to see an old dust-encrusted encyclopædia on inaccessible shelves or piled in a corner waiting for someone to decide its future. When the Encyclopædia Britannica moved to an entirely digital version, it retailed at a staggering $1200, the same cost as the printed and bound version. In a marketplace where digital encyclopedias are either free or a fraction of this cost, it must have seemed very expensive to consumers, but it was a realistic reflection of the vast human resource required to keep the encyclopædia up-to-date. An interesting account of how Britannica adapted to changing demand can be read in this article from the Harvard Review, written by Jorge Cauz, former president of Encyclopædia Britannica.
Wikipedia is often cited as the reason for the Encyclopædia Britannica‘s demise, and it’s worth considering the advantages of digitisation that has made it the go-to reference source for so many. Firstly, it is open-source, and therefore in theory more democratic, anyone can add to a wiki. Wikipedia’s own page about Wikipedia states, ‘Wikipedia is written collaborative by largely anonymous volunteers who write without pay. Anyone with internet access can write and make changes to Wikipedia articles, except in limited cases where editing is restricted to prevent disruption or vandalism.’ This has allowed for exponential growth in authorship and increase in encyclopedia entries.
Secondly, accessibility is a significant advantage, certainly, in terms of search speed and availability of material. At a single click of a button, Google’s algorithm will return Wikipedia as the top search on most items. However, accessibility in terms of the quality of the writing can be lacking. Facts are presented baldly. While this might not inhibit a mature reader needing to check a date or attribution for an invention, it doesn’t offer a friendly hand to a younger reader to lead them through a subject and scaffold their learning, which the best writers of children’s nonfiction do so well.
Furthermore, while there are benefits to having open-source material, there are also huge disadvantages, especially when it comes to supporting children’s understanding. Firstly, the unreliability of entries is not uncommon. I have learnt from personal experience when interviewing writers and illustrators not to take their Wikipedia entries at face value and always to double-check with the interviewee. I am no longer surprised at how frequently inaccuracies arise. These can be changed but they need to be reported. As I write this review, I notice that the entry for Harry Hill no longer claims that he supports the football team Harrow-on-the-Hill as it did when I interviewed him a couple of years ago. Not true. My suspicious mind thinks the writer of that article was having a joke – though Harold Hill would have been an even better joke. Suffice it to say homework that consists of children printing out pages from Wikipedia or copying chunks of information is not edifying. We can’t ignore that we live in a world where Wikipedia is an important reference source for so many. Still, we can help children view it as one source among many and teach them to understand the advantages and disadvantages of using it for reference and to take a critical stance.
So is there a place for a printed encyclopedia today? I was intrigued to learn that Christopher Lloyd, founder and publisher at What on Earth Books was embarking on a new project to publish a children’s encyclopedia in association with Britannica Books. Is this a step in the right direction? It is a bold move and one that has paid off. The book is a cornucopia of the wonderous. It’s authoritative and appealing in its text, illustration and design.
The conventional definition of an encyclopedia is a reference book or set of books which summarise knowledge, dividing it into shorter articles. The focus for an encyclopedia is to provide factual information and typically in print books, this is organised alphabetically, although there may be some thematic arrangement. The term ‘encyclopedia’ comes from Greek via Latin and means ‘complete knowledge’. The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that I have moved between using ‘encyclopedia’ the spelling that is is now widely accepted in English and ‘encyclopædia’ which reveals the Greek origins. For accuracy, I used the older spelling in the title of the Encyclopædia Britannica when referencing it (the older form is rarely used today, although still accepted in British English). Form heron, I will use the common spelling.
Britannica All New Children’s Encyclopedia: What we Know and What We Don’t, to give its full title, breaks the mould in several ways. The first is evident on the front cover, those critical words ‘and what we don’t’ are fundamental to enquiry and from the outset make it clear that the information presented in this 415-page volume is the best of our current understanding, there is so much more to be discovered. And in acknowledging this, the book implicitly invites the reader to consider that they may be part of this human quest for knowledge.
Knowledge is provisional: some things are known with some certainty, some things we can conjecture from the evidence available to us, some things we know that we don’t know. And there will be things that we have no idea that we don’t know because they lie outside our everyday experience and imaginative capacity. It’s the explicit signposting of the unknown that gives this book an edge. Presented in fact boxes titled ‘Known Unknown’ introduces what we don’t know and posits theories that scientists have developed. Here’s an example, from a section about icebergs:
Why are some iceberg’s green?
Most icebergs are bluish in colour but some in the Anatrctic are green (called jade bergs because they look like the stone jade). Scientists don’t know why these icebergs are green, but one theory is that yellowish-red iron oxide minerals scraped up by glaciers mix with the normal blue colour of the icebergs and make them green. (p.84)
These Known Unknown sections are an excellent opportunity for discussion with children. We might ask, does it surprise you that we don’t fully understand something as simple as an iceberg? How do you think scientists might be able to test this theory? I wonder if there are any questions that you have after reading this page that have not been answered?
Another welcome feature is the explicit introduction of the experts who have been consulted and written the encyclopedia. The use of experts isn’t new, but they have usually been hidden from the children, perhaps with minuscule acknowledgement at the end of the book, intended for adult eyes only. The NOTE from the expert feature introduces the expert with a short biography and quotation. This serves to show children how knowledge is researched and written about by specialists in a field as well as providing aspirational role models. Through the inclusion of these notes, children are exposed to a wide range of job titles: astronomer, planetary research scientist, astrobiologist, geologist, palaeontologist, hydrologist, particle physicist, structural engineer, zoologist, ecologist, geneticist to list a few. Here’s an example Note from the Expert:
Roma Agrawal Structural Engineer
There are so many forces that act on buildings such as gravity, wind, and earthquakes. Engineers like Agrawal make sure that structures can resist these forces and stand strong. For Agrawal, an important challenge is to make structures environmentally more firendly.
‘Engineering is creative. You get to design something, then watch it become a real thing.’ (p.141)
Throughout the book Game Changer’s, people who have made significant contributions to our understanding of the world, are highlighted. These include familiar names like Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Dimitri Mendelev, Nicolaus Copernicus, Stephen Hawking, Amerigo Vespucci and Marie Curie. But also less well-known names such as Murasaki Shikibu (Japanese writer credited with writing the world’s first novel) and Henrietta Swan Leavitt (astronomer who calculated a new way to measure the distance to the stars which was later used by Hubble to prove that Andromeda was a galaxy separate from our own).
It is evident that some thought has been given to the broad representation of experts and Game Changers. The balance of male and female doesn’t quite reach 50%, but there are lots of female role models across all branches of knowledge include the physical sciences and technology. One area where there could be an improvement is in the representation of BAME experts. Although there is internationalism in the panel, experts that might be described as BAME are not as numerous as the white experts. It’s a starting point that can be built on in subsequent editions.
The other major achievement is the overall design of the project that makes it a delight to pick up and read, whether you want to browse or look something up. Encyclopediae are rarely read from cover to cover, but this is another example of the Britannica All New Children’s Encyclopedia bucking the trend. I started at the beginning and made my way through to the end. I put this immersion down to the skilful nose for a story that editor Christopher Lloyd brings to the project. There is a narrative thread in the organisation from Chapter 1 The Universe through to Chapter 8 Today and Tomorrow, which propelled me forward, eager to know what comes next.
The book’s appeal is also a testament to the two illustrators Mark Ruffle and Jack Tite. The pages are attractive but not at the expense of design over content. Diagrams are captioned and labelled with purpose and clarity, rather than a ritual peppering of text with redundant labels or the omission of text to pin down meaning in the diagrams, which can let down some books. It’s a skill to get this just right, to provide enough explanation so the diagrams can be understood and not overwhelm the reader. Some of the text is on the small side, but the printing on colour in black or white is generally very readable.
What this new encyclopedia does so well is to reuse some features throughout the text to develop familiarity and structure. There’ the Known Unknown boxes already mentioned, FACTastic awe-inspiring snippets:
Without the Earth’s natural greenhouse, our whole planet would be like Antarctica – the coldest place on Earth.
Temperatures would drop by around 33°C and the world would be covered in ice. Life as we know it would not be able to survive. (p.93)
Listified provides, you’ve guessed it, interesting lists, such as lists of the world’s longest rivers or New Year Festivals around the world. However, there is a sensitivity to content and so in spite of these familiar features that recur through the text an overly formulaic approach is avoided. The effect this has is to continually surprise and delight the reader with the turn of the page. Here’s an instance where a full double-page spread has been devoted to one photograph and minimal text because the photograph does the talking. I think I gasped when I turned this page and immediately went to share the photo with my family. A great editorial and design decision.
I also applaud the well-structured glossary and index which are supportive for the reader. For instance, take this explanation about why rivers bend:
All rivers wind. As they get closer to the sea, they flow over wide soft plains of silt (soil and grains of rock). They form S-shaped loops called meanders, as they wear away the banks on the outside of bends, where the flow of water is faster, and deposit silt on the inside of bends, where the flow is slower. (p.83)
There’s no need for ‘silt’ or ‘meander’ to be listed in the glossary (and they are not) because the explanation is integrated seamlessly in the text. However, you would hope to find ‘silt’ and ‘meanders’ in the index (and they are).
Here’s another example:
The Egyptian game of Senet is over 5,000 years old. King Tutankhamun and other pharaohs enjoyed it. They played with five to seven token that they moved around squares on a small board. (p235)
Which words would you expect to be indexed? My answer to that question is Senet, Tutankhamun, pharaoh and Egypt (for Egyptian). All of these are accurately indexed. Are there any words here that you would hope to find in the glossary? I would expect to see an entry for ‘pharaoh’. It is partially explained in the text if you use the inference that ‘King’ could mean the same as ‘pharaoh’, though it is not entirely explicit here. Also, ‘pharaoh’ is a significant word which is likely to appear more than once in this encyclopedia and using my adult knowledge, I know that ‘King’ is an insufficient definition. Turning to the glossary, I am pleased to find it there with a succinct but clear definition:
pharaoh A ruler of ancient Egypt, who was often worshipped as a god. (p.399)
I have one minor criticism; I would have preferred the convention of emboldened text for words that appear in the glossary. I think this is supportive for young readers and triggers the idea that they can turn to the glossary to look up the word. This might not be as necessary for mature readers who have internalised the purpose of a glossary.
Overall, this is a triumph of nonfiction publishing for children which sets a gold standard. I hope to see it in many classrooms and school libraries, and especially being read, enjoyed and used by children. Far from resurrecting a relic from the past The Britannica All New Children’s Encyclopedia leads the way forwards.
Copyright: Nikki Gamble 2020. All rights reserved.