This fall, the American Museum of Natural History published a boxed set of four large-format books of history. To call them books, though, does them a disservice. These “Timeline Wallbooks,” on the suitably big subjects of science, nature, history and Shakespeare, are like nothing you're likely to have seen before. Each volume contains a 6-foot-long illustrated chart showing, in hand-drawn pictures across a horizontal timeline, the occurrence of major historical events.
Also included is a companion "Wallbook Chronicle," a magazine-like collection of lively articles ("Chinese Monks Accidentally Invent Explosive Powder"), quizzes, funny letters-to-the-editors, and even jokey advertisements ("Extraterrestrial Water Park: It's Out of This World!!"). They’re marketed for children, but fascinating for adults to browse as well.
It all came about because Christopher Lloyd, a former newspaperman who studied History at Cambridge University, had an eight-year-old daughter who wasn't happy at school. “Everything was focused on tests, and beyond that, somebody with a bit of curiosity and precocity didn’t have a lot to do,” says Lloyd. “We decided to try teaching her at home.”
Lloyd and his wife set up a kind of model school in their house, but Lloyd says “It was a catastrophe.” The problem was the structure: traditional learning tends to separate areas of study rather than encouraging children to look at connections between them. Lloyd searched for books that would appeal to a visual learner – he believes we’re all basically visual learners – but he couldn’t find anything contemporary that would suit his purpose.
One precedent was Edmund Hull’s Victorian-era Wall Chart of World History: From Earliest Times to the Present. First published in 1890 (and still available in facsimile), it begins with Adam and Eve. Hull had hit upon a great way to present historical events, but his history wasn't really sufficient for a modern-day student.
The result of Lloyd's rethinking how best to engage children with history is the Wallbooks, which are vividly illustrated, and come with a magnifying glass so kids can fous on even the tiniest elements included by illustrator Andy Forshaw, who has created something like 5,000 pictures for the series. Lloyd is passionate about the importance of hand illustration. “It just goes down a different pathway in the young brain,” he said. And hand illustration fits into his theme of connectivity. To raise kids who want to do things, it’s vital that they see“the output of somebody’s handicrafts.”
For Lloyd, these books are all about helping children to make connections. He says, "All the skills you might want your child to learn can be taught through what they’re interested in. Curiosity should be at the heart of how we reform our education in the future. It's about personalized learning." Sadly, he says, "We're still the victims of fragmenting things rather than sticking them back together." The Wallbooks, with their unique presentation of history, are one way for students -- of any age, really -- to follow their own interests into a deeper knowledge of the past.