A Tribute to Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedias!

If you’ve never heard of Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedia, you have my sincere pity. I loved these books as a child, and still do today. Not exaggerating at all: I still read these things constantly.

Originally published in 1980, the fifteen book set covered many terrific things, from dinosaurs to foreign wardrobes to our own brains. Using Peanuts characters and comic strips to make every topic relatable to kids, they weren’t very similar to “normal” encyclopedias. It was more like the Cliffs Notes version of everything. All the fat was trimmed; we just got the interesting parts.

I don’t remember how I originally came upon them. It was probably through one of those “supermarket specials” where you got a free book by inadvertently promising to buy the rest. Through yard sales and thrift stores, I’d eventually end up with multiple copies of every volume, from both the original ‘80s run and the updated ‘90s printing.

These books were and remain my happy place. To this day, I’m never more at peace than I am with my face buried in Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedia. If you only know the broad strokes about these books, you might assume that the entire appeal lied in the Peanuts comic strips. Not true at all! Those added a lot, but seeing Snoopy and Linus wasn’t even close to the best thing about them.

Here are six of the REAL reasons I loved Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedia:

#1: Perfect topics.

A lot of ground was covered in the fifteen volumes, but make no mistake, Funk & Wagnalls knew where their bread was buttered.

Dinosaurs! Outer space! Holidays! Those were just a few of the things covered, and what kid wasn’t interested in topics like that? Keep in mind, they didn’t just “go through the motions,” either. You’d learn the obvious stuff, but they actually dug pretty deep. For example, the dinosaur volume actually had a thing about the Tylosaurus, a prehistoric sea monster that would’ve never been mentioned if these were mere “baby books.”

There’s one caveat. Never repeat what you read in Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedias in an effort to sound smart. We’ve learned lots of new things since these books were published, and some of the factoids are pretty outdated. Use this as your start-point to learn things – not your end-point. (I felt it was important to clarify this, even though I’m pitching thirty-year-old encyclopedias to thirty-year-old people. I guess that’s kinda dumb?)

#2: An introduction to strange things I’d eventually become obsessed with.

It isn’t true, but I feel like I was born with some of my interests. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t into dinosaurs or the cosmos, and I certainly didn’t need Charlie Brown to make me pay attention to those things.

But with the books covering so much stuff, I definitely picked up new obsessions from their pages, too. How many Kon-Tiki jokes have I made over the years? Nobody ever knows what I’m talking about, but I still make them, and Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedia is the reason why.

(A guy named Thor Something used the Kon-Tiki to sail across the Pacific Ocean in 1947. To prove that people could’ve made the same trip 1500 years prior, the raft was built only with that era’s materials and equipment. But I don’t love it for its history. I love it because it looked like a clubhouse at sea.)

It’s just one of the many things I’ve latched onto specifically because of these books. It’s amazing how a good photo and a Peanuts sidebar could get me to read about just about anything.

#3: A chance to learn about things I would’ve never bothered to otherwise.

Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedias were just chock full of information. Ever have a night where you mindlessly browse Wikipedia, clicking link after link until you’ve somehow learned everything there is to know about a giraffe’s bone structure? These books were the low-fi version of it.

Did I want to know how Himalayans earned a living? No, I can’t say that it was ever on my mind. But I never regretted picking up these gems. Who knows, maybe the useless trivia will come in handy someday. Maybe I’ll go on a game show and win 50k just for knowing that Himalayan people enjoy a good yak.

#4: Charlie Brown knew what we really wanted to know.

A normal encyclopedia might need to adhere to “normal encyclopedia rules,” meaning you’d be shooed away by wordy boredom before getting to the good parts. But Charlie Brown? He knew better! If you’re going to mention skunks, skip the parts about how they nest and how good their vision is. JUST TELL US WHY THEY STINK. And if you can do some hilarious word-weaving to avoid mentioning anuses, that’s all the better.

It’s the same way with most of the other topics, too. When they bring up snakes, we immediately learn about which ones eat humans. When they bring up Eskimos, you only need to get through two paragraphs before they teach you how to make igloos. It’s awesome.

#5: Eerie Wonder.

The writers didn’t dance around the more “mysterious” topics. I mentioned the Himalayans before, and that section includes musings about the Abominable Snowman. In the volume about space, they talk about everything from aliens to future-humans living in big floating cities that look not unlike robot cigars.

They never “fudge” anything, but there’s a certain “speculative” element to Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedias. Speculation is good, because the most interesting things in the universe are the ones we don’t have any proof of.

So go ahead, Snoopy. Toss me eighteen different theories about why the dinosaurs died. Paint a picture of a giant comet hitting an icy planet at the exact moment when all of the food was depleted, and hint at a globally-spread fatal disease just to cover your bases. I didn’t care then, and I don’t care now. I’d rather you be interesting than right.

#6: The books made me appreciate… well, everything.

These days, we take information for granted. It’s impossible not to. Everyone’s an expert on everything, because we’re two clicks away from learning anything about anything.

Of course, it wasn’t always that way. What I appreciate most about Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedias is something the books could never pull off today. They were glimpses into areas of the world (and beyond) that I would’ve otherwise had zero access to. The books made me appreciate things I overlooked, and things I’d previously never even heard of.

Before Charlie Brown, I’m not sure I knew that doodlebugs were vicious bastards that built death traps for ants.

Before Charlie Brown, I thought a “windjammer” was just an ugly jacket.

It went on and on, but what I learned was secondary to the respect I gained for the things I learned about. Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedias just made everything seem so much better and purer.

Maybe that’s why I still spend so many nights picking them over sitcom reruns?

  • Fulgora77

    Husband has the whole set. I think I’m gonna bring them all into the can for bathroom reading. I’ve run out of Archies ;)

  • http://atopfourthwall.blogspot.com Linkara

    I had two of these as a kid! Can’t remember what the second one was (biology, maybe?), but one was on insects and it was a delight. I recall Sally being frightened that a Dragonfly would sew up her lips or that bees sting because they’re jerks. And yes, I remember the bit with the Antlion shown above. Don’t know what happened to them; I would presume they’re in a box in my parents’ crawlspace.

  • pdac

    I remember these.I had a couple of them.fun to read.hey matt,this is off subject but did you see they are remaking the old ducktales NES game?

  • http://m.pinterest.com/pin/135600638752998977/ Stonetumbler

    Total threadjack but we are housesitting for some people we know and I found this in their kid’s playroom. Should I be worried about coconut crabs?

  • King JLA

    What’s your opinion on the various Charlie Brown specials were they tried to teach you something about history by having the characters play the historical figures (like being pilgrims on the Mayflower, etc.)? I always found them simply ok, but they seemed to lack the charm of the non-educational ones.

  • Spectre

    Hmmm, I had the Peanuts dictionary collection growing up. Had no idea they created a encyclopedia as well. Loved the dictionary set- to this day I credit them for teaching me how to spell “President”. Thanks Peanut Gang!

  • Kev

    I had these as well and totoally forgotten they had ever existed till now

  • ragnbone

    Hey Matt. First time caller. I’m just letting you know that the plural is Eskimo. I’m not one hundred percent one that but this week I’ve heard Inca corrected on history podcasts and some channel trying to be the true successor to Discovery’s golden period. Also, I know “eskimos” doesn’t fly on Words With Friends so I’ve decided this is why and not some silly noun rule. This seems like an appropriate spot for questionable trivia to get off my chest as any.

  • Tony

    I just googled these last month due to some nostalgia. Never before have I heard anyone mention these other than you, Matt. This is why I come here. This set inspired me to read when I was younger and get into reading non-fiction books that tended to have lots of interesting facts like Guiness, Ripley’s, etc.

    If you’re inspired by Ripley’s shows and books, it’d be great to see you do an article on it, Matt. I’m going to guess you were also into Ripley’s, correct?

  • http://www.facebook.com/therealteddyray Teddy Ray

    I vaguely remember these. I’m pretty sure I never owned them, but I must have read them at the doctor or dentist’s office, school, the library, where my mom got her hair done, etc.

    Does anyone remember ValueTales? They were simplified and somewhat fictionalized biographies of historical figures, used as an allegory, illustrating the value of a positive characteristic. There were brightly colored cartoon illustrations and the figure usually had an anthropomorphic item or animal that narrated the story and advised the figure in the book (for example, if I remember correctly, Jackie Robinson had a homemade baseball made of rags named “Rags,” who helped him). They sound corny and they probably were, but I had a ton of those things and I loved them for some reason.

  • http://www.collectpeanuts.com Caren

    Great tribute! Have you been able to find yourself the original book rack that was sold with the set? You can see it here: http://collectpeanuts.com/wp/office-supplies/bookends/

  • Krepta

    Teddy Ray: Thank you! I remember those from classrooms, and being really baffled by the whole imaginary friend theme running through all of them– but I didn’t remember what they were called. Now I have to dig through Amazon until I find a few of those to review.

    (I wonder if they ever did one about Jim Henson? That would be the one of the only ones to make sense in this context!)

  • http://nostalgiajunkie.net Annette

    When I was little, my parents were friends with the pastor and his wife. Their daughter had a few of these and when we’d go over there, I’d read them. I remember sitting there reading the volume about the human body and being utterly fascinated.

    Teddy Ray, I remember ValueTales! I had several of them. They were pretty much complete bullshit, but they did introduce me to some major historical figures, so I guess it wasn’t all bad.

    Were anyone else’s parents obsessed with book clubs? My dad was constantly signing me up for book club subscriptions. I had Disney’s Year Books, I had ValueTales, various supermarket books, some young reader book club that I can’t remember the name of, nature books, and on and on. I had a pretty impressive library for a kid. I wish I still had all those books, but I have come across quite a few of them in thrift stores and used bookstores.

  • http://traveling-pics.livejournal.com/ Traveling Pics

    I love my collection of Snoopy’s Super Book of Questions and Answers. Funny, these books used the same Peanuts’ drawings and photo archive than this Cyclopedia!

  • MelissaY1

    I owned about 3-5 volumes of these and not in numerical order. They were sold at our local A&P and my mom would pick them up as often as she could. I tossed them years ago, but spent many years way past the target age for these books enjoying them. This article also reminds me I owned a set of Disney type encyclopedias covering different topics, and the Sesame Street library which had possibly the best illustrations of the characters ever in print.

  • Nat Gertler

    The pictures are the same in these books as they were in the Charlie Brown’s Super Books Of Questions & Answers because these books are basically reformatted versions of those.

    My big score on these recently was a Spanish language set of them… including one volume done just for that market: http://aaugh.com/wordpress/2012/06/a-peanuts-book-score/

  • Stephen_od

    I didn’t have these growing up but I had a friend who did. The trick was to get invited over but then have him distracted so I could read his books. I am going to try to get these now.

  • http://boardwalkangel.blogspot.com/ starwenn

    Annette, my family did several Disney book clubs for a couple of years from the mid-80s through the early 90s. Mom still has a whole bunch of those books at her house for my nephews when they visit.

  • http://www.facebook.com/YellowTurtleFitness karen

    These books were my favourites as a kid.
    I only had one or two left from my own collection, so I bought my daughter a whole set. As a huge Snoopy fan, she adores them, too.

  • systemofaclown

    The way you describe these books as your “happy place” reminds me of my own feelings towards the Richard Scarry books. There was something I loved about being shown every single possible type of farming implement. There was nothing I enjoyed more than a two page spread showing something like “different types of regions”, where it would an urban center slowly turn into suburbs in the centerfold, and to a gently rolling rural country side by the time you got to the edge of the right page. I’d stare at them for hours, imagining myself exploring his amazing little cartoon worlds.

  • http://sunnyvillestories.com Max West

    Dude, I totally loved the Charlie Brown’s Cyclopedia series! I would always get them from my local libraries.

    However, the ones I’m more familiar with are the “Super Books”. All fifteen of those individual volumes were compiled into five bigger “Charlie Brown’s Super Book of Questions and Answers”.

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