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Beyond Barney: What Makes a Good Dinosaur Book?

Step into the science section of any library or bookstore (you know — the section way in the back) and you are guaranteed to find plenty of dinosaur books. Few science books written for children get star treatment of the kind reserved for these creatures. You’ll likely find grisly stories of death and destruction, heartwarming tales of cuddly young dinosaurs, and a host of encyclopedias listing the Latin names for multitudes of dinosaur species. Dig deeper and there might be fossil field guides, ride-alongs with modern-day paleontologists, and historical accounts of their predecessors. But of all the books published on this one topic, what makes a worthwhile read?

First of all, walk past the books up front in the picture book section — the ones that feature talking, thinking, feeling dinosaurs as models for children’s development. As cringe-inducing (Barney) or likable (the appealing dinos in Jane Yolen and Mark Teague’s popular How Do Dinosaurs . . . ? series) as they may be, these books feature dinosaurs as child stand-ins, not as objects of scientific inquiry. However, heading back to the nonfiction section does not guarantee informational accuracy, either. Some science-y dinosaur books use artistic license in their portrayals of dinosaurs by presenting them as peaceful and calm, or focusing only on behavioral traits that align with the ones we humans value. A good dinosaur book tells it like it is. Dinosaurs were not nice or mean; they were animals. They cooperated with other animals when there were advantages to doing so, and they beat each other up when there were advantages to doing so. Different species had different levels of aggression. There were no moral dilemmas involved in dinosaurs’ decisions to defend their mates from rivals or to kill their weaker offspring to ensure survival of the stronger.

A good dinosaur book is careful to represent dinosaurs in shapes and colors that are as accurate as the evidence can support. Cartoonlike dinosaurs in soft pastels with big round eyes and hints of smiles on their faces mislead readers. While it’s true that scientists don’t have a whole lot to go on in terms of what dinosaurs looked like, it’s probably safe to say they weren’t mint green, mauve, or baby blue.

jenkins_prehistoric actual sizeA good dinosaur book doesn’t contradict scientific evidence but instead brings something new to it, such as Steve Jenkins’s Prehistoric Actual Size, in which true-to-scale representations help readers to conceptualize how big or small these creatures were. If you don’t have a museum handy, this book is a great substitute. Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart’s wonderful Encyclopedia Prehistorica series also is a leap forward in visualizing dinosaurs and their contemporaries. The three-dimensional paper representations allow readers to turn, touch, and scrutinize dinosaurs in ways not possible before. And although the colors used are bright, they are not outside the norms found in nature.

brown_day the dinosaurs diedAmong dinosaur books is a subgenre that is the polar opposite of the pink, cuddly, friendly dinosaur books: the doomsday, death-and-destruction books. I’ll admit I much prefer these. Although they have the potential to be too scary for some readers, they are more realistic, if sometimes overly dramatic. Who can resist the real-life events at the end of the Cretaceous Period — an asteroid crashing into the earth, a fiery sky of doom followed by ash clouds, no sun, and the slow death of species no longer supplied with what they need to survive? Revel in this death and destruction as in the easy reader The Day the Dinosaurs Died by Charlotte Lewis Brown, and you’ve got a good read with accurate science. Even better are books that put the peril narrative into perspective, helping us understand how patterns of long periods of slow change followed by big events have altered life on Earth repeatedly over a few billion years. Franklyn M. Branley’s What Happened to the Dinosaurs? manages to capture the complexity without sacrificing clarity.

A good dinosaur book can also be one that — gasp! — doesn’t focus solely on dinosaurs. The Cretaceous was teeming with amazing flora and fauna, some of which was also wiped out at the time of asteroid impact. Giant ferns! Super bugs! Why should dinosaurs get the starring role all the time? Wouldn’t it be fun to discuss what makes a good fern book? How about a book about bacteria? Those critters survived multiple mass extinctions over the history of Earth. I guess no one’s figured out how to make bacteria cute.

aliki_fossils tell of long agoToo often, science books focus on individual organisms rather than species interrelationships in an ecosystem. A good dinosaur book allows dinosaurs to share the spotlight with others. Plants and smaller animals didn’t exist just so that dinosaurs could eat them — they were part of a complex balance of organisms dependent on one another. Aliki’s classic Fossils Tell of Long Ago includes dinosaur fossils among those of many other organisms whose fossilized remains help us understand the past. Patricia Lauber’s Living with Dinosaurs turns the typical dinosaur book on its head, as Douglas Henderson’s illustrations show us the world from the dinosaur’s perspective, allowing the complex ecosystem to take center stage.

While branching out from just dinosaurs is a good thing, it’s also important that a good dinosaur book stick to its proper time period. Dinosaurs and woolly mammoths (not to mention Homo sapiens) did not coexist, so please don’t put them in the same book. It’s tempting to want to highlight the most popular extinct animals in the same book, but doing so makes it very difficult to convey the vast periods of time that separate these species and the incremental evolutionary development that explains when and if they’re related.

norell_nest of dinosaursMost importantly, a good dinosaur book fully embraces the complex and fundamental scientific theories that underlie this seemingly straightforward topic. Nearly every major branch of science intersects with dinosaurs in some way. The rise and fall of the dinosaurs is a case study in evolution, particularly in understanding the origins of modern birds. Books such as A Nest of Dinosaurs by Mark A. Norell and Lowell Dingus showcase the evidence that supports these findings and the ways that scientists piece it all together. The structure of the universe and the early history of the solar system help explain the asteroid impact that devastated the dinosaur population. The chemical reactions and meteorological patterns in the atmosphere and on land explain why some living things suffered and others didn’t. Geological processes explain why dinosaur fossils are found in some places on Earth and not others, and why they even still exist millions of years after the organisms that made them died. Asteroid Impact by Douglas Henderson is one of the few books that dig into these areas of science, and Henderson’s dramatic, detailed art illustrates the major events without overdoing it.

floca_dinosaurs at the ends of the earthThe field of paleontology is based on a relatively limited set of evidence, which provides plenty of opportunities to discuss the community of scientists and how they convince one another of their ideas. Indeed, this is an area of strength in dinosaur books, with plenty of good ones to mention. Brian Floca’s Dinosaurs at the Ends of the Earth gives historical perspective on turn-of-the-last-century science. Nic Bishop’s Digging for Bird-Dinosaurs updates readers with a modern field expedition to see how fossils are uncovered, while Sandra Markle’s Outside and Inside Dinosaurs gives us the technology used when those fossils return to the laboratory. Kathleen V. Kudlinski in Boy, Were We Wrong about Dinosaurs! dares to admit that scientific theories change as new ideas and evidence are introduced.

Each of the books above illustrates components of what makes a good dinosaur book: taking on challenging topics as accurately yet as creatively as possible, illuminating aspects of scientific theory and practice that help readers understand their nature, and never losing the wonder and excitement felt by scientists and children alike when imagining what Earth must have been like when dinosaurs were around.

Titles Discussed Above

Aliki Fossils Tell of Long Ago; illus. by the author (Harper, 1972)

Nic Bishop Digging for Bird-Dinosaurs: An Expedition to Madagascar; illus. with photos by the author (Houghton, 2000)

Franklyn M. Branley What Happened to the Dinosaurs?; illus. by Marc Simont (Harper, 1989)

Charlotte Lewis Brown The Day the Dinosaurs Died; illus. by Phil Wilson (HarperCollins, 2006)

Brian Floca Dinosaurs at the Ends of the Earth: The Story of the Central Asiatic Expeditions; illus. by the author (Jackson/DK Ink, 2000)

Douglas Henderson Asteroid Impact; illus. by the author (Dial, 2000)

Steve Jenkins Prehistoric Actual Size; illus. by the author (Houghton, 2005)

Kathleen V. Kudlinski Boy, Were We Wrong about Dinosaurs!; illus. by S. D. Schindler (Dutton, 2005)

Patricia Lauber Living with Dinosaurs; illus. by Douglas Henderson (Bradbury, 1991)

Sandra Markle Outside and Inside Dinosaurs (Atheneum, 2000)

Mark A. Norell and Lowell Dingus A Nest of Dinosaurs: The Story of Oviraptor; illus. by Mick Ellison (Doubleday, 1999)

Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart Encyclopedia Prehistorica: Dinosaurs; illus. by the authors (Candlewick, 2005)

From the May/June 2007 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Danielle J. Ford About Danielle J. Ford

Danielle J. Ford is a Horn Book reviewer and an associate professor of Science Education at the University of Delaware.

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