- The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature
We have entered the second golden age of the encyclopedia. Part of this renaissance is the result of the proliferation of academic publishers that regularly [End Page 331] announce new, and indispensable, encyclopedias on important-sounding subjects. Invitations to contribute to these worthy volumes of scholarship are extended much to the relief of eager graduate students and assistant professors anxious for publications. Printed encyclopedias began in the eighteenth century thanks, in part, to the ambitious work of intellectuals and encyclopedists during the French Enlightenment. The alphabetic format was introduced in 1704 by John Harris, with his Lexicon Technicum; or, An Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. However, Ephraim Chambers, who published a two-volume Cyclopaedia in 1728, is sometimes credited as the father of the modern English-language encyclopedia. But perhaps the best-known work in this genre remains the Encyclopaedia Britannica, first issued in 1768. Move ahead about 250 years, and print encyclopedias, including the formidable Encyclopaedia Britannica, are experiencing stiff competition from upstarts on the Internet, such as Wikipedia. While the accuracy of information circulating on the Web may be questioned, what we are seeing is that such materials are relatively quick and easy to access, edit, and debate. Reliable print text sometimes migrates to the Web, where copyright rules and attributions may be murky. Even so, Web resources are where students often turn first.
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature has evolved out of this historical legacy and complicated contemporary milieu. This is one big encyclopedia that fills up four volumes and took five years to produce. Although Jack Zipes’s name appears on the title page as editor in chief, he is quick to acknowledge the work of two editorial boards of eight associate editors and twenty-two advisory editors and more than three hundred contributors. There are 3,214 entries arranged in alphabetical order and almost 400 illustrations that were thoughtfully selected by Andrea Immel, the curator of the Cotsen Children’s Library at Princeton University. Given the importance of illustrations to children’s literature, these images are a significant aspect of the encyclopedia. Most of the historical and international images are credited to the Cotsen Children’s Library, although several of the more contemporary examples are credited to the personal book collections of either Zipes or Immel.
Zipes suggests that The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature is “the first comprehensive reference work in English to provide detailed information about all aspects of children’s literature from the medieval period to the 21st century on an international scale” (xxix). As a reference work, it is certainly bigger than other similar children’s literature reference books, but bigger does not necessarily make it better. Like The Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature (2005) that Zipes also helped to edit, the sheer size makes it somewhat cumbersome. As a faculty member who regularly teaches a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses in children’s literature, I am impressed by the size and scope of The Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature but question the need [End Page 332] of a 2,471-page anthology of this genre. What sort of course can adequately use such a textbook?
Similarly, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature is not the only children’s literature encyclopedia available, and its publication raises the issue of how many children’s literature encyclopedias are needed. It seems that as a field of scholarly study, children’s literature has quickly moved from the great excluded to the overextended. I own a shelf full of such reference works, including Humphrey Carpenter and Mari Prichard’s The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature (1984); Anita Silvey’s Children’s Books and Their Creators (1995) and her expanded second edition, The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators (2002); Victor Watson’s The Cambridge Guide to Children’s Books in English (2001); and Bernice E. Cullinan and Diane G. Person’s The Continuum Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature...