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Fossil fuel

Discovering drama in dinosaur books both old and new


I don’t know if dinosaurs have caught the imaginations of children from time immemorial. I’m guessing not. I’m guessing that the existence and extinction of dinosaurs per se were events outside the domain of general knowledge in ancient times. Perhaps instead it was dragons that sparked the fancy of early children—that is, those children who lived before the modern period. In this sense, dinosaurs are contemporary.

The previous paragraph is a muddle of quasi-specific, pseudo-authoritative language: “Time immemorial,” “ancient times,” “early children,” “the modern period,” and so on. This kind of writing, in which even “contemporary” is unclear, manifests the fuzzy and stultifying workings of an unscientific mind. Unfortunately, it also provided much of the text for the one dinosaur book I had lying around the house when I was a child. For years, when I thought “dinosaurs” I thought: docu-speak.

Then I had children and discovered dinosaurs anew. It appears there is room for all kinds of minds—fuzzy or crystal clear—in the dino-lit of today. There is, for example, room for wistful romanticism, as manifested in a book entitled What Happened to Patrick’s Dinosaurs? by Carol and Donald Carrick. In this book, Patrick sees dinosaur shapes in the shrubbery and in the clouds (which is OK, since Patrick is only seven). Patrick has a theory that dinosaurs and people once coexisted and that the dinosaurs were a highly developed species that took care of the needs and entertainment of humans; they built tree house homes, planted bananas, invented cars, built roads and put on circuses.

One day Patrick’s brother Hank sets him straight. The world either got too hot for dinosaurs, or it got too cold, or an asteroid hit the earth and covered it with dust. Hank doesn’t actually come right out and tell his brother that the dinosaurs all died, even the babies, but the implication is clear. So Patrick’s own dino-story—which has them all boarding a spaceship and jetting off, possibly to return someday in a second coming—is, it seems, a way of imaginatively managing death, while also redeeming it a bit.

What Happened to Patrick’s Dinosaurs? is a melancholy book. The two brothers are raking leaves as they muse, and they stare at the embers of a November sunset. So toss that aside (says your own child) and let’s go straight to Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Creatures, by Michael Teitelbaum.

Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Creatures is an obscure, out-of-print book. I got it at an auction. I think it was donated to the auction because it was too violent for the still-small children of the donors. We kept it, and the cover fell off after many readings.

It pretends to be highly scientific, and perhaps it is. If so, the science is kept well-hidden behind the lurid drama. There are 10 chapters, each devoted to the daily events of some pea-brained variant of dinosaur who, after the most innocent and blissful beginning to the day, meets a ghastly fate—ripped to shreds by a predator. The drawings are a cross between Japanese cartoons(the kind businessmen read on trains), Goya, and Crumb. The text begin innocuously, but quickly turns to high dungeon.

“The air was hot and humid [begins a typical chapter]. The sun was spreading its strong rays across the land. Suddenly, there was a rumble coming from the trees.” The word “suddenly” is used a lot, in marked contrast to the static quality of my childhood dino-book, which featured dry statistics and drawings of noble, corps-of-discovery type dinos staring out across desolate vistas, thinking about geologic time and destiny.

“Suddenly, Dimetrodon heard loud footsteps behind him. There was something large moving just out of sight in the undergrowth.” Absent from Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Creatures (“As Plesiosauras looked around a gigantic head burst through the water,”) is a sympathetic hero, but there is always a definite resolution to the story, usually one that involves dinner. “Swiftly the deadly jaws of Dimetrodon closed round the throat of Diadectes and the reptile breathed no more.”

This is action science, horror paleontology. As a genre it’s good for snagging the interest of children who think that education should make your heart pound—an under-served population. But of course, an eventual segue from flesh-ripping to facts is also desirable. (There is a rather dry concluding chapter to this book called “Facts About Dinosaurs,” but given the sensational nature of the day-in-the-life scenarios, you won’t get to this chapter and, if you do, its information will pale in comparison.)

Which brings us to Jack Horner and his newest dinosaur book, Dinosaurs Under the Big Sky. Jack Horner, a Montana native from Shelby who is curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies, has published a number of dinosaur books, including Dinosaur Lives, Digging Dinosaurs, and my favorite, Maia: A Dinosaur Grows Up. (This is revisionist history in that it tells, specifically, the female story. It is also a fictionalized account of one maiasaur’s coming of age which is rather sad and poetic.)

Dinosaurs Under the Big Sky is the book Horner says he wishes he had been able to read in high school when he tried to do a scholarly comparison of collections in Montana and Canada. It is scholarly, but not dull (Horner was, after all, the consultant on the Jurassic Park movies.) It is dense with information but eye-catching and easy to read. The cover is almost tongue-in-cheek flashy, with a B-movie look about it. The Bill Parsons paintings inside are like Audubon on acid.

This book might lure in older children and adults the same way those children’s book do, but still, it doesn’t go crazy making dinosaurs thrilling, and it doesn’t lapse into beyond-the-pale romance. Read it along with Maia’s tale and you’ll have a good dose of dinosaur facts with your fantasies.

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