Mary Worrall, Managing Editor, Children’s Reference, reports
The idea of developing a new children’s encyclopedia had been in the air ever since the Oxford Junior Encyclopedia went out of print in 1978. When market research was first undertaken in 1979, it became clear that the real need was for something quite fresh, designed for the 8 to 13 age group rather than for teenagers. This is the age of maximum curiosity as well as of investigative project work at school and it’s a stage when children may still accept and even read books chosen by adults – something they are less inclined to do as the teenage years wear on.
Once we had settled on a seven volume extent, solid enough for a serious work but compact enough to result in a selling price that would not break the family budget, we addressed the question of organization.
THEMATIC OR ALPHABETICAL?
Parents, children, librarians and teachers were unanimous in advising an alphabetical arrangement. A thematic set presupposes that you know where to start looking. Are railways listed under engineering or communications? Is radio included under technology or entertainment? Are viruses categorized as part of the living world or as science or even diseases? Children of primary and middle school age have not yet got to grips with the generalized concepts that adults may take for granted. Indeed you might argue that an encyclopedia, if intelligently constructed, can help young readers to make connections from the disparate bits of knowledge that intrigue them. The choice of an alphabetical sequence of articles made the planning stage a lot more complicated but results in a reference work that is easy to use.
DECIDING WHAT TO PUT IN
The question that comes up most often from people both inside and outside publishing is ‘How did you decide what to put in?’ and by implication – what do you leave out?
I invited specialist consultants to draw up lists of headwords in obvious categories but since the ultimate consumers will be children I wanted to know what they were interested in and what kinds of words they would use for their research. We also had to resolve the dilemma faced by all compilers of reference books: whether to be a lumper or a splitter. In other words do you have separate articles on granite, limestone, chalk, etc. or lump them all together in a general article about rocks? In order to throw some light on the problem, we distributed over 70 notebooks to parents, schools and public libraries all over Britain, to places as diverse as Belfast, Edinburgh and Leicestershire. The brief was to record in the child’s own words every request for information over a three-month period. When the lists from the notebooks were collated and analysed, the results were heavily weighted to the sciences, especially zoology and technology, and very sparse on literature and the arts. Moreover, in the sciences children could pinpoint pretty exactly what they wanted to look up. In contrast, mentions of the arts were much more vague.
The solution, arrived at after a good deal of debate, was to plan the arts articles around larger categories than the science articles. For instance there is one six-page article under the heading ‘Paintings’ which mentions impressionists, surrealists and abstract art but does not approach painting from the perspective of genre or historical school as an adult encyclopedia would. Likewise comedy, tragedy and melodrama are explained within the article headed ‘Drama’. Cross-references to painters, playwrights and actors in the Biography volume extend the range well beyond the child’s starting point.
For the life sciences we worked the other way round. Children tend to know the names of species and some families but they do not know how species, families, orders and classes relate together; so we built in a classification framework by cross-referencing and marginal charts. The same kinds of thought went into planning hierarchies of headwords under Earth sciences: for instance ‘Mountains’, plus shorter articles on the ‘Himalayas’, ‘Andes’, ‘Alps’ and ‘Rockies’.
The final headword list emerged from a trade-off between what the consultants recommended and what the children expected; we were ambitious enough to include articles beyond the intellectual range of most children: ‘Relativity’, ‘Superconductivity’ and ‘Geological time’. So there will be occasion to return to the more demanding articles over years of use.
APPROACHES TO KNOWLEDGE
As well as drawing up the lists of headwords, the consultants also put their minds to considering the best ways of approaching the subject matter. A group of scientists met under the chairmanship of Professor Charles Taylor and agreed that the starting point for technology articles should be how things (cameras/ helicopters/washing machines) work rather than when they were invented. The historical information should be placed at the end, with cross-references to relevant biographies. Another significant feature of many articles on the physical world, such as ‘Air’, ‘Bubbles’, ‘Cosmology’ and ‘Crystals’ is a section describing ‘Something To Do’, an activity rather than an experiment that will illuminate the concept.
The history debate was interesting. At an early meeting of the history sub-group, contributors argued that it would be impossible to tackle long periods such as the Anglo-Saxons, Tudors or Victorians. But the research showed that these were precisely the kinds of headings children would look up. So the next debate centred on whether the content should be organized on narrative lines or focus on a social description of the period; and how, within such constraints of space, could the notion of change within a period be conveyed. World history, which did not figure significantly in the survey of interests, was to appear either as a flashback section at the end of an article on a country: ‘Austria’, ‘Iraq’, ‘Nigeria’, or, for major countries or cultures, as a separate article: ‘China’s history’.
The biography volume, which is Volume Six and the only thematic one, goes far beyond names the children listed: typically Mother Teresa, Mrs Thatcher, The Princess of Wales, Mr Gorbachev and a selection of ephemeral pop stars. We hope that the cross-references from the main articles will lead children on to read about the lives of scientists, artists, musicians, writers and a host of historical characters. The decision to group all the biographies in one volume rather than interspersed among the other articles was a pragmatic one: there is no difficulty in remembering that a person will always be found in the biography volume.
FITTING IT ALL IN
The next stage was to work out a page plan. Each article had been coded according to importance and length, ranging from **** signifying three pages or more for such major subjects as ‘Evolution’, ‘Musical Instruments’, ‘Roman Ancient History’, ‘USSR’; *** stood for a double-page spread (‘Cats’, ‘France’, ‘Theatres’, ‘Vikings’), and so on down to quarter-page slots for concepts such as ‘Civilization’, ‘Civil Rights’, ‘Classics’; small countries and some species of animals and diseases.
The designer, Richard Morris, and I spent much of the summer of 1987 shuffling index cards in an old shoe box until every article fitted. John Brown, who was at that time Gloucestershire’s advisory teacher for libraries and resources, ensured The design, which went through several stages of testing on children, colleagues, librarians and a book club before we were satisfied with the typography, column widths, disposition of captions and treatment of headings, proved flexible enough for a variety of page layouts. The demands on our authors were considerable. They worked out synopses for every article of a page or longer. Richard Morris then turned this into a page layout, and text and artwork were commissioned to fit and complement one another. Many articles, particularly those on technology, started with a brief for the illustration.
COMBINING DIVERSE SKILLS
Some wonderful authors produced text that fitted the space exactly and needed minimal editing. They also supplied the detailed briefs for illustrations and/or references to photographs, reproductions of source material and artworks. I had started the search for authors with high hopes of commissioning writers who were both experienced communicators to children and also expert in their fields. This combination of skills is not so easily acquired and in some areas of knowledge is thin on the ground. In general, non-fiction publishing for children is not in the same class as children’s fiction and there is not such a large pool of writers to draw from. I invited several well-known writers of historical novels for children to contribute biographies but none accepted the commission. Nor were established textbook writers always successful in communicating information. The fashion for ‘starting where the child is’, ‘involving the reader’, and ‘provoking enquiry’ can result in text that tells you little that you did not already know. So the normal processes of revising, reshaping, adjusting length, checking facts, ensuring that there was not too much overlap and that the cross-references worked, was carried out by a team of freelance editors as well as by the hard-pressed in-house staff of two, reduced to one when the assistant editor went on maternity leave.
Academics acted as consultants, advisers, checkers and occasionally as authors. Colleagues in OUP’s branches overseas enlisted expertise and recommended authors. Finally the project’s treasure, Richard Jeffery, copy preparer, proof reader and master of an astonishing range of knowledge, picked up errors which the most assiduous academic had missed, that we did not lose the overall balance. An attempt to work out a basic page planner failed electronically because the computer was not as intelligent as the designer whose contribution to the process of planning and conceptualizing was enormous. The thorough planning did work though there were hazards and a need for flexibility when, for instance, countries changed their names. Kampuchea reverted to being Cambodia thereby creating a gap in the Ks and requiring a revision of Camels to make a slot in the right sequence. Germany reunited and so did the two Yemens, making their respective maps obsolete as well as most of the text.
The credits listed over 100 authors, 60 or so consultants and several trial schools. Teachers were generous in giving their time to try out articles and all this has helped to produce text that we hope will make sense to children. Information is useless if it’s incomprehensible. Our policy has been to construct articles that offer a coherent explanation rather than pile in too many facts and to provide a network of cross-references that will lead children on in an endless discovery of the wealth of human knowledge.
The Oxford Children’s Encyclopedia (0 19 910139 6) in seven volumes is published this September. Until 31st December 1991 it costs £100 net and from 1st January 1992 the cost will he £125 net.