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The Special Collection of Deakin University Library contain many items read and used by children, most particularly the Australian schools textbook collection and the children's literature research collection, which between them contain examples of what children read at home and what they read at school. Although Arthur Mee's ''Children's Encyclopaedia'' is contained within the textbook collection, it crossed the boundaries of home and school and its popularity and unusual format make it of particular interest.
Before the ''Children's Encyclopaedia'' commenced publication in 1908, nothing on a similar scale had ever before been produced for young readers. Although Arthur Mee had only one child and always said that he knew little about children, he had the ability to write sincere, straightforward prose that did not talk down to children. It was this skill that helped to make the ''Children's Encyclopaedia'' such a success. Parents and teachers had a resource to answer all the questions that children manage to ask and also found much within that was of general interest.
Arthur Henry Mee (1875-1943)
Arthur Mee was the second oldest of ten children; his father was a Baptist and a railwayman from Nottingham and Arthur seems to have inherited a strong religious streak, an intense dislike of alcohol and a passion for hard work and self education from his Nonconformist parents. He became an apprentice newspaper reporter and worked hard, producing freelance work as well as editing and writing for his employer until offered a job on a London paper. During this time he produced books and articles and worked for several papers until in 1903 he began working for the publisher Sir Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe) and his Amalgamated Press, an association which continued until Mee's death. His first major project was ''The Harmsworth Self-Educator'', a magazine series published in forty eight issues between 1905 and 1907, of which he was the general editor. Its success led to many other projects for Harmsworth, the Children's Encyclopaedia being one of many.
The precise bibliographic details of the ''Children's Encyclopaedia'' are difficult to ascertain as each edition seems to have been produced without any publication date! It was produced by the Educational Book Company, a subsidiary of Amalgamated Press and first appeared in fortnightly parts. Fifty parts were produced between 17 March 1908 and 1 February 1910, with increasing sales for each issue, a most unusual occurrence for a part work where sales generally taper off. Well before the last issue appeared, the publishers began to sell the work in volume form as well. Between 1908 and 1922 twelve editions of the Encyclopaedia were published in eight volumes.
Between 1923 and 1946 fourteen new editions of the Encyclopaedia were published, this time in ten volumes. This edition was greatly revised and expanded and now contained many new sections and illustrations and a much larger index. There was also a serial re-issue which sold as well as the first.
This edition was most likely republished further until the early to mid 1950s, when another version was produced. Arthur Mee had died in 1943, so the title page of this new version reads: ''The Children's Encyclopaedia: originated and edited by Arthur Mee''. However it was virtually a replica of the 'second edition', with only some necessary factual alterations and additions included. The Encyclopaedia was also published in the United States and Canada and translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese.
The ''Encyclopaedia'' has an unusual layout, which lends itself to browsing and skipping, another factor contributing to its popularity. Unlike other encyclopaedias, it is not alphabetical nor does each volume contain a separate theme. Rather, the Children's Encyclopaedia contains 'divisions of knowledge' and of 'practical teaching'. The divisions comprise broad categories such as Literature or Countries or Plant Life and practical teaching consists of Things to Make and Do and School Lessons. Chapters from each of the divisions are spread throughout the volumes, but there may not necessarily be a chapter from each division in each volume and the chapters may be of differing lengths. All the chapters were written to stand alone, so even a division of knowledge such as History, which was spread chronologically throughout the volumes, need not be read in order. The variety of topics covered in the Encyclopaedia is truly extraordinary: practical subjects such as how to keep a hedgehog as a pet, how to clean a slimy sponge and how to make a lasso are alongside entries on abstract, philosophic topics like 'beauty' and 'courage'. Children are encouraged to read about ''What the State does for Us'', ''Where Colour Comes From'' and ''The Wonderful Ant'', and to enter into: ''Men and Women - the story of immortal folk whose work will never die'' or ''Stories: the great stories of the world that will be told forever''.
The Encyclopaedia was immensely popular whilst it was being published; it is estimated that up until 1946, somewhere in the vicinity of 5,380,000 sets were sold; the serial version (which many subscribers had bound) would increase that figure by approximately 1,500,000. Australian readers had to order the Encyclopaedia from England as it was not published in Australia. However it seems clear that it made its way into many households and is remembered fondly by many readers.
A school principal from Australia, after hearing of Mee's death in 1943, wrote to his publisher's office: ''Our School mourned for Arthur Mee, for we knew we had lost our Great Leader and teacher. We kept the flag at half-mast for a whole week and the whole of that time was devoted to studying and reading his writings.'' (Hammerton, p.15) Mee's claim at the end of the Encyclopaedia that: ''Into the homes of millions of people this Book of my Heart has gone ...'' is remarkably accurate!
Crago, Hugh ''The Last Days in the Old Home'' in Signal: approaches to children's books, no. 58, Jan. 1989; pp. 51-70.
Hammerton, John Child of Wonder: an intimate biography of Arthur Mee, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1946.
OzIdeas and Innovations 2005, ''Imagination in Education: Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopedia, an endangered achievement of 20th century Art'', viewed 25 May 2005, http://home.vicnet.net.au/~ozideas/arthurmee.htm.
Robson, Maisie Arthur Mee's Dream of England, The King's England Press, Rotherham, 2003.
Kristen Thornton is responsible for the contents of this page.