Usborne’s Classic UFO Book Beams Back To Earth From The 70s
This article is more than two years old and was last updated in April 2022.
Following on the heels of last year's successful reissue of their 'The World of The Unknown: Ghosts', Usborne are set to release the second book in the series, UFOs. We take a look at the book* to work out what you can expect...
It's difficult to imagine now but during the late 1970s the world was in the midst of a wave of UFO fever, the peak of which appeared around the release of Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of The Third Kind. There were apparent alien visitations reported on the news, regular reports of 'mysterious lights', official sounding organisations sprung up all over the place, trying to apply a degree of scientific rigour to what was being seen in the skies, hovering over houses, and in some cases, inserting things in places they really weren't welcome. Add in playground gossip and sci-films and TV shows, and it's no surprise that children of the 70s very often grew up, if not actually believing in aliens visiting the earth, at least giving the idea the time of day.
But in the pre-internet era, where could you turn to to make sense of this confusing world? Strange as it might seem, we used the library, or bookshop, if your parents were feeling generous. Kids in the UK were lucky enough to have an authoritative book published in 1977 to help them navigate the confusing world of UFOs. Originally published as part of the 'World of the Unknown' series, along with 'Monsters', and perhaps the most famous 'Ghosts', 'The World of the Unknown: UFOs' was THE book every kid wanted at the time, especially once Close Encounters of the Third Kind had playgrounds full of stories of strange lights in the sky. It brought Usborne's characteristic beautiful illustrations combined with a straightforward editorial tone to bear on a subject which could at times be frightening and confusing.
A lot was written about the re-release of the Ghosts book last year. Probably because this was genuinely frightening for many, but also these books were key texts which put many on a lifelong journey of fascination with the paranormal. You don't have to believe in ghosts, or aliens visiting the earth, to be interested in those who do. Following relatively shortly after the publication of this book the magazine The Unexplained arrived in 1980. Taking many of the same themes as the Usborne books, this went into more detail on many of the incidents reported in the book. Also in 1980 the TV show Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World, a thirteen part show looking at various paranormal phenomena including UFOs was broadcast in the UK. The sequel series, World of Strange Powers, was broadcast in 1985. So it was perfectly possible for young children who grew up on the Usborne books would graduate onto more adult paranormal material as there was just more of it around on mainstream TV at the time.
Following the successful re-release of 'The World of The Unknown: Ghosts' it came as little surprise earlier this year to find out that Usborne will be re-releasing 'The World of The Unknown: UFOs' in October this year and is available to pre-order now.
With only a new forward from astronomer and impressionist Jon Culshaw, the book is being made available to a new generation of children, or perhaps more accurately, the 1970s generation of children who finally get a chance to own a chunk of their childhood that was long since thrown away.
What the Usborne books of this era share is a combination of high quality production values, great research, beautiful airbrushed artwork, but also an enthusiastic tone combining a degree of scepticism with the fact that, you know, maybe what these people are reporting just might be true!
Starting with the acknowledgements, which include APRO (Aerial Phenomena Research Organisation), BUDC (British UFO Documentation Centre), BUFORA (British UFO Research Organisation), Flying Saucer Review, The George Adamski Foundation, NASA and even the Royal Astronomical Society. This isn't just a cash-in book, someone has spent time and effort putting this thing together.
The Story Of UFOs
The book opens with an introductory section taking you through what a UFO is, and although 'strange objects in the sky' have been noted through history, it's the modern era of UFOs which form the focus of the book, kicking off with Kenneth Arnold's famous sighting of nine saucers in Washington State in 1947. The main different kinds of UFO are listed such as cigar shapes, discs, spheres etc before listing some common examples from reports.
The book moves on to set the modern day sightings of UFOs within the context of 'historical' UFOs. This section is really picking up on the theory of 'palaeo contact' which the Swiss author Erich von Däniken was instrumental in promoting. His book, Chariots of the Gods, first published in 1968, promoted the idea that ancient human civilisations has been influenced by extra-terrestrials who they had revered as gods. For example, Stonehenge, the pyramids of Egypt and the Nazca lines in Peru were all listed as artifacts that ancient man would not have had the necessary technology or knowledge to produce. Needless to say, the theory has been dismissed by most academics working in the area, but it made those dry history documentaries you watched with your parents more exciting if you thought aliens were behind it all!
The next section breaks down some examples of UFO case studies into four sections, The UFO Files.
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File 1: 'Target Earth'
'Target Earth' talks about how UFO sightings across the world often occur in waves, but offers some explanation by saying that perhaps the reports of UFOs actually encourages more people to make reports. Also, that even when people are reporting the same event, their descriptions of what they saw can be wildly different. This is a classic example of how Usborne often took a 'Fortean' approach to writing about subjects such as UFOs and Ghosts by hinting at possible solutions to what had been reported.
One of the case studies featured in this page is the 'flying cross' incident, where two policemen reported a cross-shaped light in the sky in front of them. What made this particularly interesting to youthful UFO watchers of the 1970s was that this example came from the late 60s, only a few years before publication, and from Hatherleigh in Devon. It could hardly get more close to home!
File 2: 'Close Encounters'File 2 is titled 'Close Encounters', yes that term was in use before the film came out, and takes you through the three key classes into which UFO encounters are grouped as originally developed by Allen Hynek. One of the examples here is the egg-shaped saucer reported by police officer Lonnie Zamora in New Mexico 1964, whilst Project Blue Book is also discussed.
File 3: 'Scramble... UFO!'File 3 is titled 'Scramble... UFO!' and is full of stories where planes were scrambled to intercept suspicious radar signals. Again, an opportunity to include a notable British story is included here in the form of the Lakenheath-Bentwaters incident of 1956, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lakenheath-Bentwaters_incident Remember, the publication of this book preceded the better known Rendlesham Incident by several years.
File 4: 'Encounters In Space'File 4 examines incidents in space, where astronauts have reported unexplained phenomena from orbit. One of the stories in this section is that the Moon is itself a UFO, a hollow spaceship. The authors of the book seem less than convinced, however "there is slender evidence for this colourful theory and, until further proof emerges, the possibility that the Moon was once a spaceship stays remote."
The book continues by talking a look at oddly shaped aircraft which could have been mistaken for spaceships, and also a look at UFO's in films.
A 'Blue Peter' section of the book takes you through building your own model UFO and gives you lessons on how to fake photos of UFO. Surely Usborne isn't claiming that some UFO photos are faked? Actually, they are, giving a couple of examples which, they suggest are faked, including George Adamski's famous saucer photo of 1952.
Following this is a double page spread of items which are commonly reported as UFOs, such as weather balloons, light reflecting off low cloud and lighthouses. All useful stuff for the budding Fortean.
A section on what aliens might actually look like focuses on a goblin like alien which bears some resemblance to ET – short body, big bugging eyes.
The book is rounded off with a look at how alien spaceships might work and a dictionary of UFOlogy.
Although the book is perhaps most of interest to those looking to regain some of their lost childhood, it deserves a place on the bookshelf for anyone even remotely interested in UFOs, believers or not. It's packed with great illustrations; it's clearly written and it's a genuinely interesting read both for adults and children alike.
Many people in the 1970s genuinely believed that UFOs were aliens visiting the earth. Not only that, but that they were here to bring a positive message to mankind. Is there any harm in dipping back into those wide-eyed innocent days of the 70s again?
The book makes a great companion piece to watching Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET.
'The World of The Unknown: UFOs' is released on October 1 2020, but is available to pre-order now on Amazon.
* We didn't get our hands on a new copy of the book with the new foreword, instead we plucked our old, wrinkled up copy from the 1970s to review, but the content is the same, minus the foreword.
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