When Christopher Lloyd was a child, among a library of books his father inherited from his uncle was the Children’s Britannica, all 20 volumes from 1978, standing proud on a shelf in their bright crimson livery. The children’s edition was last printed in 1984 and in today’s digital universe feels like a relic from a bygone era, but Lloyd has his set still. "As a child, I was particularly fond of the thistle on the spine," he says. "I found it rather reassuring."
That thistle, which harks back to Britannica’s Scottish heritage – the first Encyclopedia was published in Edinburgh in 1768, although the company has been based in America since 1909 – has not been seen on a new Britannica hardback for a decade. The final print edition of the world-famous adult versions that once graced the bookshelves of households up and down the land was published in 2010. Since then, Britannica has been entirely online, its thriving free-to-use website managed by 400 editors in Chicago. But this month a new single-volume Britannica for children rises from the ashes of print publishing, the first of its kind for 36 years and with the thistle intact.
"The thistle feels like a thread connecting the deep past with my childhood and then with the children of today," says Lloyd, a historian and author who has edited the edition. "It feels like a stake in solid ground."
Lloyd is hoping parents will agree. The Britannica All New Children’s Encyclopedia, to give it its full name, has all the scholarly authority you’d expect from a Britannica book, but the idea, says Lloyd, has been to reinvent it for a 21st-century readership.
"We’ve done away with the A-Z model because these days people look up individual facts on the internet," he says. "Instead, we provide a slalom journey through the history of the world in eight chapters; four devoted to the history of Earth, four to the history of mankind. We’ve backed up pretty much every page with contributions from more than 100 experts in the hope children might see those experts as role models. "And crucially, where the old encyclopedia would provide an answer, we’ve made it clear that we don’t always have one. We give an outline about what is known that hopefully opens up a load more questions."
Subtitled ‘What We Know and What We Don’t’, and co-published by Lloyd’s publishing company What On Earth books (set up in 2010 and specialising in books that connect knowledge through ‘giant narratives’), the All New Children’s Encyclopedia is indeed a cartwheeling compendium of interconnected facts, questions, answers and not-sures, taking the reader from the Big Bang to the future of thought-controlled body parts, and bursting with colourful visuals and snappy paragraphs on what, for instance, would happen to an astronaut if they fell into a black hole. (Scientists don’t know, but think if they fell into its outskirts, they would quickly resemble a piece of spaghetti, much to the delight of my seven-year-old daughter.)
The point, says Lloyd, is to provide a cross-curricular approach that you wouldn’t necessarily get online so that the reader can understand why the fact that the Sun releases more energy in a second than has been used in the entire history of mankind makes it a potentially invaluable player in the future of renewable energy. "Of course, you can look anything up online," he says. "But this book is designed as a journey of curiosity. It allows you to explore through time, and to follow your interests, rather in the same way the brain isn’t divided into individual subjects. And all the information is editorialised to make it accessible and easy to understand. Plus, it’s a book. So no distractions!"
Perhaps even more crucially, its purpose is to encourage children to engage intellectually with what they are reading. "I don’t mean to sound heretical, but I do think reading non-fiction is more beneficial to children than fiction," says Lloyd, who runs his company out of a barn in Sevenoaks. "It’s crucial to developing a child’s critical skills. In today’s sea of fake news where no one really trusts experts any more and where we are surrounded by a mass of uneditorialised information and opinions, giving children the equipment to determine whether something may or may not be true is more important than ever."
Facts may be under threat like never before, but the Children’s Britannica arrives in the midst of an interesting moment for children’s non-fiction. Traditionally, fact-based books have been the poor relation to make-believe, partly the fault of well-intentioned parents who are more likely to buy a child a lavishly illustrated edition of Alice in Wonderland than a book about volcanoes.
Lloyd often visits schools, having written several non-fiction books (and is frequently depressed to find himself introduced as the first non-fiction author the school has hosted). He agrees there is often a bias in favour of fiction, but he also thinks there is a bigger problem with a curriculum that for years has been obsessed with league tables and SATs results and encourages spoon-feeding.
"Universities want students who can think for themselves, who are self-learning systems, which is what we will all need to be if we are to meet the challenges of the future. It’s hard to reverse something that’s become institutionalised. At the moment we seem to view schools as a mass production factory where we are trying to create a load of drones. It does tremendous damage.
"Ironically, there are more opportunities to redress these things than there has been, as long as we get children out of this hell of screens where they are being distracted all the time," he says. "The need to engage children with how everything connects has never been more important. We need to fill them with a determination that knowledge is worth fighting for."
Britannica All New Children’s Encyclopedia by Christopher Lloyd (editor).
The Daily Telegraph