The Usborne Children’s Encyclopedia by Jane Elliot and Colin King (1986)

I don’t know where to start with this book. I have loved it since I was 7 or 8.  That’s over 25 years of hot book loving. This sh*t is real.

I actually own three copies – two that were purchased for me as a nipper (I can remember the moment I was given another copy by another well-intentioned relative, but, as a well-brought up child, smiled through the pain) which reside somewhere in the depths of my parents’ loft at 54 Bedford Road, and this copy that I bought a few years ago, when I began to pine for it, but wanted to avoid the loft at Bedford Road. The spiders in that loft have nipple piercings and listen to Death Metal. I think they occasionally do hard drugs and I’ve heard that they’ve started a cage-fighting syndicate. I ain’t going up there if I can help it.

I pined for it as life had become rather complicated and I wanted to go back to that time when my greatest worries were whether Dad was going to record A-Team for me and whether Mum would let me stay up late on Friday to watch my idol Joan Collins in Dynasty. Tears of a clown. I particularly missed the funny pictures, which I could still remember in detail, no doubt because when I wasn’t dreaming of marrying Face from the A-team (the love that will not die, not even when Mum claims that ‘he probably needs Viagra now you know, Bron’), or becoming as glamorous as Joan Collins (there is still hope. She IS Viagra), I was stuck in this book until it got Proper Late (i.e. about 9pm).

Those pictures were like old friends when I saw them again after a quarter-century. They really did cheer me up, and they still do when I am having one of my ‘moments’. But now I see new things when I look at them, and think the creators of this magnificent book were really on to something. Take a look:

‘Right, let’s start by making sure these brats understand they are not the centre of the universe. Make them feel small by pointing out how tiny our entire solar system is compared to the gargantuan galaxy it is part of.’

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‘Let’s make it clear to them that history is not always kind to The Little People. Let’s give them an entire page on the Industrial Revolution, complete with distressing descriptions of the workhouse and factories. That should make them more grateful next time they have a tantrum in Toys R Us.’

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‘Ok but let’s not make it too bleak. Let’s give them hope that they can actually change things for The Little People, if they get off of their fluorescent cycle-short-clad bum bums’ (see bottom left of page below).

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 ‘Let’s make sure they know there is a land beyond this green and pleasant Thatcher’s Britain. And try to explain races without making them racist. We may not get this quite right, but let’s give it a good old go.’

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‘Also, there should be an inspiring page on the wonders of education, including a dig at teachers who just fill kids’ brains with information rather than encouraging them to think creatively, which is what we’re trying to do with this book y’all’ (see top left of page below).

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‘Finally, they should really know where poo poo comes from. But don’t call it poo poo, obviously. Just make it brown so they make the connection’ (see centre bottom of page below, if you’ll excuse the pun).

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But that’s not just it – as I looked through the pages as a grown up, I spotted how often girls got a look-in. As well as the Modern Times page below, which includes a female judge, barrister, and athlete, and a man doing the housework, you’ll find female politicians, cabinet ministers and Suffragettes on the Government and Politics page, girls being scientists, guitarists and glassblowers (bit random) on the Education page, and plenty more besides. There is also a subtle but evident signal that girls have had to fight, and by implication still have to fight, for things –  the right to an equal education (‘in the past girls were taught different things to boys…this is still true in some places today’), to do certain jobs (‘two world wars caused social change..many do jobs that only men did in the past’) and to vote (‘suffragettes… held demonstrations and tied themselves to railings’).

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This felt unusual for the 80s. I remember the disdain from the check-out girl in Woolies when I bought a set of A-Team action figures (my efforts to get close to Face knew no bounds) and being told that ‘girls could always be the cheerleaders’ even if we didn’t make the school football team. Curious, I consulted the front page. Turns out that there was a team of women behind this book, apart from Colin who drew the pictures. Jane and co – I salute you. Colin – thanks for the joy of the intricate pictures which I still like to pore over. Thank you for everything. You set me up for life.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Nathan Hobby says:

    I find it wonderful you reviewed this treasure. I didn’t have this one, but I had one of the Usborne ancient civilisations books (STILL have) and I regard it with a similar fondness. There is something enchanting about the Usborne pictures and view of the world.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you liked it Nathan! And I agree about the enchantment. I don’t think it goes away with the books you first love as a child.

      Like

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