What On Earth Books
Christopher Lloyd, writer and co-founder of What on Earth Books with illustrator Andy Forshaw, challenges conventional knowledge and traditional book formats to publish exciting non-fiction books aimed at young people aged 7+. Armadillo Magazine’s Simon Barrett managed to finally pin Chris down and speak with him on the telephone … he is a very busy man! Simon’s feature concludes with a series of mini reviews.
What on Earth Books embodies Chris’ philosophy of knowledge, perhaps best summed up in the title of his May 5th 2014 blog, ‘Connecting the dots of the past’. His central argument is that a child’s curiosity is so important for acquiring knowledge, stimulating children to want to find out more. Sadly in his family’s experience school did the opposite, his eldest child complaining, aged 7, that school was boring. This prompted Chris and his wife choosing to home-educate their girls, Matilda and Verity. Chris argues for a more holistic approach to knowledge that resists separating subjects and, perhaps more importantly as our environmental conscience grows, making connections between the natural world and human society. He fondly recalls Matilda’s love of penguins when she was being home schooled, and how by nurturing this interest, Matilda also learnt about Antarctica and poetry by exploring poems about penguins.
The phenomena that is What on Earth Books began in 2010. Chris published his first wallbook The Big History Timeline Wallbook, a children’s version of his first book What on Earth Happened (Bloomsbury). He followed this up with a further five wallbooks on sport, natural history, science, the works of William Shakespeare and British history, managing to publish a wallbook a year and continuing a family tradition of his great uncle, gardener and namesake, who also published a book a year. When writing these first wallbooks Chris describes how he was reinventing the old idea of a timeline. He spent months sketching out the timeline -- although he admits his drawings were not very good -- and redrafting the content that Andy Forshaw would later illustrate. He recalls the satisfaction of filling up a blank piece of paper as well as enjoying the challenge of compiling all the information into one timeline, comparing the feeling of seeing the finished book to that of a carpenter finishing a handcrafted piece of furniture.
Typically Chris and his team would meet, brainstorm ideas, go away, draft ideas and create a final version that the institutional experts checked for accuracy. The result was therefore an authoritative scholarly text, accessible and exciting for young people to read and enjoy.
Chris is a great storyteller, famous for his coat of many pockets. Talks and presentations are something he loves. I had the privilege of being educated and entertained by Chris when he was promoting The Science Timeline Wallbook at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, London. The coat of many pockets is, as Chris explains, an element of amateur dramatics: everyday objections relating to important events and discoveries are placed in different pockets for children to come up and take out. Chris then explains the significance of each object, making connections to people and places hundreds and thousands of years ago. The ordinary -- even a toilet roll -- becomes the extraordinary through Chris’ amazing stories, seen as the tip of an iceberg of a greater story, re-animating the way we see the world. As he states in the mission statement of What on Earth Books: “the real word is far more amazing than anything you can make up!”
What on Earth Books continues to experiment with formats. Chris is emphatic that print has so much more to offer and in a digital age a learning experience that cannot be replicated on a screen. The original wallbooks have been revised and a new ‘fold-out graphic novel’ published, North America, a geography and history of a continent. North America is eight feet and 15,000 years of history worth exploring! The pocket magnifier is also reinvented as a magical lens in books, such as Monsters. Cleverly the magical lens allows children to reveal hidden knowledge using the optical illusion of a red reveal, knowledge they can share with family and friends. In addition, flaps allow children to explore layers within books. For example, Eye Spy explains to readers how an animal sees and by lifting a flap readers actually see the world through the animal’s eyes. The thickness of board books allows cuts and holes and more opportunities for readers to look ahead in anticipation, curious about future pages. Finally, many of the What on Earth Books include quizzes and activities so children can consolidate information and use their learning in a fun way. All of this, for Chris, allows a more immersive, tactile experience, crucial to any learning.
What on Earth Books is growing. Since 2016 the publishing house produces between 15-20 books a year, written by a number of different authors. The central vision of What on Earth Books however remains focused on stimulating children’s curiosity by looking at subjects from a completely different perspective. The delightful homophone of the recently published Nose Knows, for example, explains how the sense of smell works and the way animals smell the world differently from human beings. There are plenty of yucky facts appealing to children. Unseen Worlds showcases microscopic life in water, soil and our own homes entirely invisible to human eyes. The book definitely leaves uncomfortable thoughts as you take a walk, snuggle into bed or reach into a cupboard. Humanimal turns on its head our belief that humans are somehow separate from animals, exploring instead the shared characteristics of humans and animals. While some of the information may be familiar to readers, such as how bees work as a team, that elephants seem to mourn or chimpanzees use tools. The detail is interesting and there is much more to learn, for example, leafcutter ants farm fungus, ants that milk aphids and the existence of intelligent slime mould (which is helping plan human transport systems).
At the time wallbooks were experimental. The books can be read from cover to cover. They also concertina-out, extending to a two metre timeline to display on a wall or lay out on the floor. Each wallbook, complete with a pocket magnifier, is a feast of facts awaiting discovery. I remember receiving my first review copies of the wallbooks, pouring over the pages and delighting in the cacophony of information. There is often a palatable awe and wonder when a wallbook unfurls. In the beginning, Chris explains, wallbooks were distributed through schools and at fairs, where wallbooks could be opened up and that is what people loved. It was more difficult however to distribute wallbooks through bookshops: the larger dimensions and no spine meant wallbooks were difficult for booksellers to stock. Early on, there were also exciting collaborations with prestigious British institutions including the Natural History Museum, the National Trust, the Science Museum and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. At first Chris describes chance encounters that led to such collaborations. Given Chris’ vivacious appetite for life and passion for education, I am not surprised he capitalised on such chances. In 2009 for instance he was recreating Charles Darwin’s voyage on HMS Beagle when he happened to meet Sarah Darwin, great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin and who was married to the keeper of Botany at the Natural History Museum, thereby gaining an introduction to the Natural History Museum.
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust was one of the first institutions to approach him, wanting to re-engage young people with Shakespeare and gain a greater appreciation of his plays other than having studied a play at school usually in isolation from the rest of Shakespeare’s works. The Shakespeare Timeline wallbook shows all 38 histories, comedies and tragedies by William Shakespeare, allowing readers to identify themes within Shakespeare’s work, such as the number of shipwrecks and ghosts. Despite having amazing facts and stories within these hallowed institutions, as Chris explains sometimes these institutions did not have the time or knowledge to imaginatively present them to children.
STOP PRESS! What on Earth Books has signed a contract, working in partnership with Encyclopedia Britannica to publish a new children’s encyclopedia The All New Britannica Kids Encyclopedia: What We Know and What We Don’t. This will be the first Encyclopedia Britannica publication for 10 years. The sub-title is particularly important for Chris because there is so much we don’t know. We have ideas and opinions, but sometimes we don’t know why, for example why life suddenly changed from simple to more complex forms from which all the biodiversity of our planet arises. This is something to be excited about: knowledge is an open book.
Thank you Chris for your time and an inspiring discussion about children, curiosity and knowledge.
Helénè Rajcak, illus. Damien Laverdunt
Unseen Worlds explores the normally invisible microscopic life on planet Earth. From the jungles underwater, on land and even in our beds, there are enough grossly fascinating facts and bizarre creatures to make every reader twitch, itch and scratch. It is not just what is feeding on other things, it is also what is feeding on you!
Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld, illus. Julius Csotonyi
Prehistoric travels back over 4 billion years from the present day, where humans dominate the planet, through all the eons of Earth to the very beginning of life. The vastness of this time is perhaps best appreciated in the last chapter. Here time is compressed into 12 hours with human history beginning 3 minutes before 12 o’clock.
Sarah Albee, illus. William Exley
North America as a fold-out graphic history presents a mind-boggling amount of information in a creative, imaginative way that often challenges our perceptions of this part of the world. Sadly there are wars and disasters, but there are also inventions, great architecture, monuments, industry, social progression and radicals.
Christopher Lloyd, illus. Mark Ruffle
Humanimal explores three main forms of behaviour shared by humans and animals: community, feelings and intelligence. Using scientific research based upon sometimes years of observation, there is a wealth of information about the ways in which animals work, build, live and have fun together.
Emmanuelle Figueras, illus. Claire De Gastold
Nose Knows gives a fascinating insight into the noses of wild animals and the extent to which their sense of smell operates. There are plenty of strange-but-true facts that will appeal to young readers, such as the two noses of snails and sharks! Nose Knows opens up the whole new natural world of smell.
Christopher Lloyd, illus. Andy Forshaw
Absolutely Everything! covers the entire history of the universe from its very beginning 13.8 billion years ago to the present day. The mind-boggling timescales of natural history lead into the centuries of human history as we travel around the globe from Asia to the Americas in a book that must be Lloyd's magnus opus.