Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Underappreciated Living Books Resource: Garden City/Rathbone's Wonderful World Series (1950s-1960s)

As I've written before in this space, one of my favorite online book resources is Valerie's Living Books. Another great resource is the Living Books Library. However, both sites favor a religious approach to science ("Group science books by the days of creation, light, chemistry, physics for the first day, astronomy the fourth, etc.") which isn't my bag and which I believe makes them less-than-ideal resources for the various STEM subjects.

As such, I try to be alert for those rare resources that I would consider to be both "living books" and scientifically rigorous. I recently stumbled upon a great mid-20th century series of titles, called The Wonderful World books, which I believe gives a very strong treatment to biology, physics, engineering, medicine, et al. I'd peg the books at being best for kids eight years old and up. 

My favorite of the ones I've seen so far is The Wonderful World of Life: The Story of Evolution, by Julian Huxley, which was originally published in 1958. Julian Huxley was the grandson of Thomas H. Huxley ("Darwin's bulldog"), as well as being the brother of writer Aldous Huxley (Brave New World). In addition to being merely a scion of the hugely important Huxley-Darwin-Wedgwood-Galton family of scientific significance, he was a noted evolutionary biologist in his own right. 

Anyway, I scanned a few of the pages, in case they are of interest to my fellow evolutionists:

Cover of the 1958 edition of The Wonderful World of Life by Julian Huxley. I think the horse skeleton series is a bit of an inside joke, since according to Wikipedia, Julian's grandpapa THH did some important work on horse species evolution that helped him accept Darwin's idea of "gradualism."

These are the endpapers of The Wonderful World of Life, featuring a portrait of Julian's grandpa as a young man. Bonus link: Here's a cute picture of a young Julian sitting on his grandpa's lap in later years.

I wonder if Julian knew what he was doing when subtitled the introduction "The Fact of Evolution" rather than "The Theory of Evolution."

Gorgeous illustration of the orchid Cypripedium, showing special adaptations for pollenization; the illustration on the facing page of this spread is of chameleon, and it's equally exquisite but I was too lazy to scan both. Forgive me.

Graphic depicting fossils of the Silurian age.

As per the caption, "The evolution of reptiles from fish may be simply illustrated if we imagine the development of Seymouria (bottom) from a lobe-fin lung-fish (top) through an in-between stage of a typical Carboniferous amphibian."

From what I can tell, most of the Wonderful World books had a single author but multiple illustrators. In the Wonderful World of Life volume, the first artist credited on the list of eight illustrators is Raymond Briggs. Briggs later became renowned for his fairy tale illustrations, particularly his collaborations with Ruth Manning-Sanders and Virginia Hamilton. None of the illustrations are credited to individual illustrators, but based on what I know of his other work, the image of a hyaenodon above is by Briggs. 

Illustration of primate evolution; I love how the gibbon skeleton hangs from a branch!

Back cover, just because who doesn't love a good Tyrannosaurus Rex?

Complete list of Wonderful World titles
Britten, Benjamin & Imogen Holst, The Wonderful World of Music
Calder, Ritchie, The Wonderful World of Medicine
Fisher, James, The Wonderful World: The Adventure of the Earth We Live On
Fisher, James, The Wonderful World of the Air
Fisher, James, The Wonderful World of the Sea
Haskell, Arnold L., The Wonderful World of Dance
Hogben, Lancelot, The Wonderful World of Communication
Hogben, Lancelot, The Wonderful World of Energy
Hogben, Lancelot, The Wonderful World of Mathematics
Huxley, Julian, The Wonderful World of Life
Jackson, David, The Wonderful World of Engineering
Jessup, Ronald, The Wonderful World of Archaeology
Lee, Laurie & David Lambert, The Wonderful World of Transportation
Orr, John Boyd, The Wonderful World of Food
Priestley, J.B., The Wonderful World of the Theatre
Swinton, William Elgin, The Wonderful World of Prehistoric Animals

These books were published by Rathbone in the UK and Garden City in the United States (Garden City is/was an imprint of Doubleday). The series seems to come in two versions. The first, from the late 1950s and early 1960s, has illustrations like the Life pictures above. The late 1960s editions replace the illustrations with photographs and have white covers. (Guess which style I like better?)

The authors for the Wonderful World series were a veritable Murderers' Row of mid-century British intelligensia: Benjamin Britten was a major conductor and composed The Young Persons' Guide to the Orchestra, Imogen Holst was his long-time collaborator on musical education projects and the daughter of composer Gustav Holst. Lancelot Hogben was a notable scientist and writer who invented the modern pregnancy test while researching frog endocrine systems. (He also has one of the best British writer names short of Plantagenet Somerset Fry.) John Boyd Orr won the Nobel Peace Prize; J.B. Priestley was a notable novelist and playwright; William Elgin Swinton was the leading British paleontologist of his day, etc, etc.


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