How & Why Wonder Books were… wonderful!

Collage of covers from How & Why Wonder Books from 1960 through to the 1970sI’m currently writing an essay to explain what I mean by “middle class values”, but I’ve been sidetracked into childhood memories about cows (don’t ask!) and rediscovering one truly wond’rous part of my childhood: the How & Why Wonder Book series.

If you can point to one thing that made me the geek I am today, it’s this series of books.

Each one was just 48 pages long, and the illustrations were usually paintings — pretty corny by today’s standards. But they really did create a sense of wonder for the Science and Technology which was unfolding in The Space Age. The first one was issued in 1960 and they ran well into the 1970s.

Looking through the lists put together by collectors intabits and Joe Roberts, I reckon I had at least 23 of the titles.

My favourites were The How & Why Wonder Book of Planets and Interplanetary Travel (insanely optimistic, in hindsight), Rockets and Missiles, Atomic Energy (no nuclear waste here, just atomic trains!) and The How & Why Wonder Book of Robots and Electronic Brains — man, there’s a whole essay in that last title alone, eh?

I bet my mother still has them stashed away in a cupboard somewhere.

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21 comments

  1. Nick Hodge’s avatar

    Hmmm, memories here too.

    I think I had some handed down to me; either that, or they were in the school library (the place I hid from the reality of an Australian country upbringing) in the late 1970s.

    If I recall, the “rockets and missiles” had a picture of Werner von Braun, the hero of NASA and V2 rockets.

  2. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    @Nick Hodge: I am, of course, completely NOT surprised that you know these books. The one on Stars told me how the Sun was going to eventually expand and fry the Earth — gave me nightmares for months.

    But then the first time I watched Doctor Who there were Daleks and I had to hide behind the couch.

  3. Megan’s avatar

    Oh yes — I loved those books. I fondly remember the dinosaur one in particular.

    I later progressed to Time Life Nature library where I learnt everything I know about things like operative conditioning, red shift and African animals.

    Do you remember those school project packs with the poster and pictures you could cut out and put in your project book? I think even remembering project books dates me. Now it’s all PowerPoint and Flash presentations.

  4. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    @Megan: I vaguely remember the school project packs, but they were frowned upon where I went.

    The How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs was actually the very first in the US series — and one that I owned with pride.

  5. Alastair’s avatar

    That is brilliant. I had totally forgotten about the Robots and Electronic Brains one, but I’m pretty sure I had it. All I can remember about it is wondering how that four-legged robot on the left of the cover could even walk, what with having no knees and all.

    (“My robot has no knees!” “How does it walk?” “Badly!”)

    And I never realised they made so many of the H&WWBs! Or that one of them was about the old testament!

  6. Stephen Cairns’s avatar

    As a child I lived in Australia in the 1960’s and I remember saving up my pocket money to by my How and Why Wonder Books. It was great to view the covers on the internet today as they brought back such great memories. The ones that stick in my mind are Planets and Interplanetary travel; Robots and electric brains; the human body; dinosaurs; electricity; famous scientists.
    Does anyone know how to go about obtaining old copies?

  7. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    @Stephen Cairns: Since the books are long out of print, it’s a mater of scouring the planet’s second-hand bookshops. The biggest of them all, Amazon, has quite a few listed.

  8. Jennifer’s avatar

    Hi, My husband and I were just looking at his old copies of the Robots book and wondering whether its possible to get old copies of the other books. Also does anyone know what year the Robots book came out.

    1. Philip’s avatar

      Hello Jennifer

      The Robots book first came out in 1963. I suppose it is one of those that has most dated over the last 50 years.

    2. Stilgherrian’s avatar

      @Jennifer: The How & Why Wonder Books have been out of print for a long time so you’d have to look for them second-hand online at eBay or Amazon, or in second-hand bookshops.

      Neither of the lists I found had exact dates, but the illustration style on the cover of the robots book puts it into the 1960s. I couldn’t narrow it down any further than that.

    3. crishan’s avatar

      Funny thing:

      These books are still around (and I remember them dearly from my childhood), although in Germany:

      They are called Was ist Was (look here for the German Wikipedia entry:
      http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Was_ist_was).

      Apparently in 1959, German publishing house Tessloff acquired the rights to publish German translations, which then saw their first publication in 1961.

      Recent ‘Was ist was’ books are authored in Germany, although publisher Tessloff has a lot of translations going, as you can see in their English PDF-catalogue:
      http://www.tessloff.com/fileadmin/user_upload/images/foreign_rights/Catalogues/WIW_part_1.pdf
      http://www.tessloff.com/fileadmin/user_upload/images/foreign_rights/Catalogues/WIW_part_2.pdf

      Most of the translations seem to be for the (Eastern) European market, methinks, although the PDF also lists Asian typefaces

      New Was ist was Books are still published, older issues are updated regularly etc. This series is still a major milestone for young children wanting to know about science, history etc. 🙂

    4. Stilgherrian’s avatar

      @crishan: WOW! Thanks so much for the update. I think I might dig some out, because these books were also an important part of my own interest in things scientific and technical.

    5. mark’s avatar

      I have been collecting these books for a number of years now and have reached a point where I can’t find anymore. I find the HWWB’s issued by Transworld Publishers hardest to find and I’m still looking for some of these books, especially from the late 70’s. Does anybody know have or know how to get a list of these books, so I can at least know what I’m looking for. I have a large number of spare books and would be prepared to swap and/or trade books. There is mystery why there is no US HWWB book with number 5074/5075 – could someone please explain this.

      I found it really worthwhile collecting and going through these books, even though I’m an adult now, for they revive fond memories of my childhold. If there is anyone out there wishing to get into contact about these books, I would be pleased to respond.

      1. Philip’s avatar

        I have what I believe to be a complete list. Within the next few months I will be launching http://www.howandwhywonderbooks.info with lots of information, scans etc. re the books. I have currently hit a few problems with getting the SQL database to work, and if there are any fellow collectors who have expertise in that area I would welcome some help. I am a computer programmer of old (mainframes) but I was always the applications programmer, not systems, and it is the systems side that is catching me out. Anyway, feel free to email me. If you have any questions re the series please feel free to ask, I am building my knowledge by the week.

      2. Stilgherrian’s avatar

        @mark: What you see in this post and the subsequent comments is the sum total of my knowledge about How & Why Wonder Books. If I hear anything else I’ll certainly pass it on.

      3. Robert Vulic’s avatar

        I remember these old books Planets and Interplanetary Travel and the others. Growing up in the 60s and 70s in Australia I would read every and view every picture over and over again. Saving up ever cent to buy these or go to libraries of ones I couldn’t get. (Wish we had the internet then).

        We were more well read then as kids we knew about Dinosaurs, Space Travel, science, knowledge in general.

        All my kids seem to know is the computer, Facebook and X-Box type stuff.

        I thought by the time I was an adult there would be Cities on the Moon, bases on Mars and Robots everywhere. All we have is the mobile phone, and a small home computer.

        I view these type of books with nostalgia now and remember how happy I was.

      4. Mary Bruinink’s avatar

        I have quite a few of these books and I would be happy to sell them to people if they are interested. Please email me with the titles you are after. embee61@yahoo.com

      5. Stilgherrian’s avatar

        @Mary Bruinink: I was about to suggest that you should make a list or try selling them somewhere like eBay, but then I looked at the pricing. The last few that sold on eBay went for well under AUD 10.00, and even batches of 16 or 18 assorted titles were around AUD 20.00.

        I guess they were either so common that they’re not of interest to collectors? That’s a shame, because I’m sure they inspired many geeks.

      6. Kevin Moore’s avatar

        This is an old thread but not an old topic. I have been collecting these books and have most of them and quite a number of cover variations. What drew me to this page was the reference to the German books. Was ist was certainly looks like a variation of How and Why books but I’m not sure it is. However I’m speaking out of ignornance here but I did see on the library thing at least 2 German books with identical H&W covers and the wonder book logo (Light/Color and Exploration). Clearly they were German translations. The pictures are too small to tell but the upper corner doesn’t say “Was ist was” but looks like it says “Hoe en …” and I can’t read the next word. I wonder if the translated copies came out first then they started to modify them for and renamed the series Was ist was?

        Kevin

      7. Stilgherrian’s avatar

        @Kevin Moore: The relevant Wikipedia entry only mentions the US originals and the UK adaptations.

        Now that I look back at that comment, I’d be surprised if they were aimed at the East German market, since they’re so very American. Indeed, Wikipedia says the production was supervised by someone at the Office of Education at the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare. That makes it part of America’s post-Sputnik push for more science education.

      8. Simon Townsend’s avatar

        The Dinosaur edition, which I received at age seven and was read and re read till it fell apart, set me on a life long passion for natural history. I have nothing but praise for the series as there was so little child friendly ‘science’ in the early 1960s and religious instruction was considered more important for littlies than biology and physics. Today of course we now have people leaving school who are functionally illiterate.! Bring back the H&WWBs. At school in my distant past there was competition to see who could get their hands on them first in our little school library.

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