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October 10, 2019

‘The book of my heart’: the Children’s Encyclopaedia

Our Special Collection contains many items read and used by children throughout history, including particularly the Australian schools textbook collection and the children’s literature research collection, which 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 especially interesting to lovers of history and antique books.

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 could write sincere, straightforward prose that did not talk down to them. It was this skill that helped to make his encyclopaedia such a success. Parents and teachers had a resource to answer all the questions that children manage to ask – and they ask a lot! – and also found much within that was of general interest.

Publication history

The precise publication details of the Children’s Encyclopaedia are tricky to confirm as each edition seems to have been produced without a date! It was produced by the Educational Book Company 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 1923 and 1946 fourteen new editions of the encyclopaedia were published. 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.

It 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 ‘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.

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 while 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.


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, 

Robson, Maisie Arthur Mee’s Dream of England, The King’s England Press, Rotherham, 2003.

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