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It’s Big, It’s Golden, and it’s Dinosaurs

The Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs

By Dr. Robert T. Bakker

Ilustrated by Luis V. Rey

Publication date: 2013. 61 pg.

Golden Books, Randomhouse. ISBN: 978-0-375-96679-8.

biggbofdinosb2Do these books look familiar? One is the classic book that most people old enough to be parents grew up on, first published in 1960 and continuing through 1981. The second is the new, Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs, a new, totally updated edition that came out in 2013. The book is written by Dr. Robert Bakker, known by many as the bushy-bearded, cowboy hat-wearing paleontologist of many documentaries and the author of such books as the Dinosaur Heresies and Raptor Red. Illustrations are by Luis Rey, a talented artist already mentioned here due to his work illustrating Dr. Holtz’s Dinosaurs book. Dr.Holtz’s book was written for a wide audience, geared towards children of middle school age and upwards. This book, like its predecessor,  is geared for elementary kids. So it is not as detailed, but it is even more lavishly illustrated and will definitely hold the interest of younger kids.

From the front cover to the last page, those who know and love the original book, will find it echoed here, but updated with the latest information. inside the front cover is a map of the world as it existed in the Triassic and early Jurassic, with dinosaurs dotting the landscape, showing where various dinosaurs have been found. The map is matched on the inside of the back cover with a Cretaceous map. Both maps have the names of each of the dinosaurs illustrated so you know what you are looking at. There is also an index and handy pronunciation guide for all the animal names.carboniferousb

While the book is of course heavily weighted towards dinosaurs, like the previous book, it does not focus entirely upon them. In the brief introduction, it makes a point to place the dinosaurs in context as part of an evolving ecosystem, not as isolated creatures. The book then dives into the Devonian seas,introducing us to the fish that began the walk towards becoming landlubbing tetrapods (animals with four legs). It continues with a few pages on the Carboniferous and Permian Periods, with giant insects, early amphibians and reptiles, and even animals like the iconic Dimetrodon, properly identifying its kin as ancestral to modern mammals, even explaining key features showing it’s related to us. Only then do we get to the Triassic, the beginning of the Age of Dinosaurs and even then, it starts the discussion with pterosaurs and the ancestors of crocodylians. After a mention of the earliest dinosaurs, it then mentions the proto-mammals.

AmphicoeliasFinally, we reach the Jurassic Period and it is here that dinosaurs take center stage, with gigantic, long-necked sauropods and other well-known dinosaurs. Even so, they don’t forget the small, mouse-like early mammals under foot. After a brief interlude to discuss the great sea reptiles that appeared during this time, as well as the pterosaurs, that were now much bigger and diverse than in the Triassic, they return to a discussion of dinosaurs, this time focusing on a bit of history explaining how our views have changed over the decades.

YutyrannusThe book moves then into the Cretaceous, showing how dinosaurs adapted to diverse environments, such as the sand dunes of central Asia to the snows of the poles. There is a chapter on different ways dinosaurs communicated with each other, including singing, after a fashion, much like birds and animals call to each other today, although he goes a bit overboard in this area and speculates beyond what most in the field would say is reasonable. Of course, no elementary book would be complete without a chapter devoted to Tyrannosaurus rex and its battle with an armored herbivore, in this case, the ankylosaurid Euoplocephalus and a battle with Triceratops.  While the book makes much of the use of horns and frill by the Triceratops in battling T. rex, they were almost assuredly evolved to battle other Triceratops as dominance displays, like bison or antelope today, although that of course, doesn’t rule out their use as defensive weaponry against predators.

There is the required chapter on dinosaur extinction and it does a good job of mentioning several possibilities. However, it gives a bit of short shrift to the most accepted asteroid hypothesis and a bit more space to Bakker’s favorite hypothesis of disease, which is almost assuredly not true as a hypothesis of widespread extinctions on such a large scale. To his credit, he ends with the likely possibility that no one hypothesis is sufficient for explaining everything.

The book ends with what animals actually benefited from the extinction, that being mammals. The book ends with noting that not all dinosaurs died out and acknowledging the influence that dinosaurs had on the evolution of early mammals, thereby connecting the story of the dinosaurs to us. Besides the great illustrations, that I think, is the key strength of this book, never letting the reader forget that dinosaurs were but a part (a big, incredibly impressive part) of a bigger ecosystem, with each piece influencing the others. No group was isolated from the others, all are interconnected.

Overall, while I had a few minor quibbles, as i mentioned above, I can definitely recommend this book for any elementary library. Some middle school kids will like it too, although those older than that will likely be reading it for nostalgia of the original book, who will find this version a worthy successor.

Other than the image of the 1960 book, all images are illustrations from the book.

Why do artists draw dinosaurs the way they do?

Scaly Spotted Feathered Frilled: How Do We Know what Dinosaurs Really Looked Like?

scalybookBy Catherine Thimmesh

Publication date: 2013. 58 pg.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN: 978-0-547-99134-4.

Author: Catherine Thimmesh is an author of several books aimed at children in elementary to middle school. Her books have primarily focused on people, particularly women, doing science and politics, while bringing a wealth of information along with the human stories. As a result, her books should appeal to many people, helping them draw personal connections to the material. Two of her books, Girls Think of Everything and The Sky’s the Limit, have been listed as Smithsonian Notable Books, the latter book also listed as an Outstanding Science and Social Studies Trade Book for Children in 2002. Her book, Team Moon, discussing all the people besides the astronauts that made the moon landings a success, won the Sibert Award in 2007.

Iguanodon by Waterhouse Hawkins, 1850s

Iguanodon by Waterhouse Hawkins, 1850s

Illustrator: The book is beautifully illustrated by several well-known paleoartists, including John Sibbick, Greg Paul, Mark Hallett, Sylvia and Stephen Czerkas, and Tyler Keillor, as well as Charles Knight, the artist who created the classic pictures shaping the view of dinosaurs for more than a generation. Moreover, there are pictures of skeletons, sketches showing reconstruction from bone to skin, as well as Greg Paul’s classic silhouetted skeletons. As an added bonus, she includes a page at the end with a paragraph about each artist and a fun fact about each one. For instance, Mark Hallett was the person who coined the term “paleoartist.”

I have mentioned this book previously from a review by Brian Switek (for a librarian’s perspective, try the SLJ review here), but I finally got my hands on a copy so I can provide my perspective on it and I have to say, I agree with the other reviews. this is an excellent book well worth including in any elementary or middle school library or classroom. If you know someone who likes dinosaurs and likes to draw, they will like this book. This book gives a great discussion of how artists bring fossils to life, using new discoveries that are changing our views of how dinosaurs looked and comments straight from the artists crafting those visions.

KnightbrontoThe book wastes no time, providing information on the inside covers. At the beginnig is a timeline showing the different Periods of the Mesozoic Era, with a short description of the overall climate, apleogeography, and notable fauna and flora of the time for each Period. Inside the back cover is a breakdown of the three major dinosaur groups, with a few general facts describing the dinosaursin each group and listing several representative dinosaurs for each group (along with page references for where they appear in the text). Other things that puts the book on my recommended list is a nice index, glossary, and references; things not often found in childrens’ books, which makes this book a cut above. This book does not take the sadly all too common tack of using the “it’s a childrens book” excuse to talk down to the audience and not worry about the facts 9except for one point mentioned by Switek which I will get to later).

Seismosaurus. Mark Hallett, 2006

Seismosaurus. Mark Hallett, 2006

The book starts with a discussion of questions the artists ask about the fossils themselves and what scientists can determine from them, such as what can the bones tell us about how they moved and what they ate. Further questions are asked about the plant fossils found in the rocks and what the rocks themselves say about the environment. Was it a desert? A beach? Shallow marine? Once they have what is known, then they can fill in what is not known. The next few pages provide a short history of dinosaur science and the art that sprung from it, such as the early Waterhouse Hawkins Crystal Palace sculptures in London during the 1850s and the Charles Knight paintings adorning the American Museum of Natural History. The book continues with information gleaned from trackways and new technologies helping to spur more discoveries. A discussion of the skeletons leads into reconstructing soft tissues such as muscle and eyes over the bones.

One area in which views have changed significantly is in the skin, which is discussed next. The book describes how new fossils are helping to inform new views, such as feathered raptors, although the book does not mention that we even have evidence of feathers on tyrannosaurs now. This is one area in which the book could have gone farther, it did not discuss much of the diversity of feathers, quills, and assorted spines we have recently found on a variety of dinosaurs. The use of modern animals and analogs and mechanical constraints, such as skin around joints, is also discussed. The problems and possibilities of how one decides on a color is discussed, ending on a mention of new fossils that are beginning to give us amazing insight into actual colors of some dinosaurs.


Yutyrannus, by Brian Choo via nature. 2012. Not in book.

The information here is not presented as definite conclusions, but as a puzzle, in which the scientists and artists take the various clues and try to piece them together. Sometimes, mistakes are made, such as the thumb spike of Iguanodon was originally thought to be a nose horn. The descriptions demonstrate how vibrant and dynamic the work is. As new fossils and new information comes to light, views change accordingly. The workers must constantly adapt as their knowledge base grows, with each new find getting us closer to a more accurate understanding.

The one quibble I would make with the book is one which Switek also mentioned. The book begins by stating that no one has ever seen a real, live dinosaur, which is not true. We see them every day. They are in fact the most diverse group of vertebrate animals outside of fish. The book mentions that dinosaurs and birds are thought to be related. In fact, it is often said that birds are dinosaurs because birds evolved from earlier dinosaurs. So just like children are still in the same family as their parents, birds are in the same family as all the other dinosaurs. This relationship is a key point in reconstructing fossil dinosaurs. Of course, a lot of people find it bothersome to constantly have to refer to non-avian dinosaurs to refer to only those that lived during the Mesozoic, so it is justifiable to say dinosaurs and birds, so long as it is made clear at the beginning that dinosaurs in that context are only referring to the Mesozoic ones. this book doesn’t do that, which is the only big gripe about the book. Still, a relatively minor complaint compared to the rest of the book, which is done wonderfully.

Dig up Digging for Bird-Dinosaurs

Digging for Bird-Dinosaurs: An Expedition to MadagascarImage

By Dr. Nic Bishop

Publication date 2000. 48 pg. Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN: 0-395-96056-8.

Nic Bishop has combined his avid love of photography and his doctorate in biology into a prize-winning series of books for children. His books include a series on specific groups of animals, such as snakes, lizards, marsupials, spiders, butterflies, as well as a “scientist in the field” series. It is the latter series I am discussing today. There are plenty of books available discussing the different animals, although few with the quality of photography and biological expertise Bishop brings to his work, but there are precious few that discuss the work of the scientist in bringing that knowledge to light as the discoveries are being made, which is what particularly interests me here.

Digging for Bird-Dinosaurs was published in 2000, so it is not current, but is still topical and relevant and should stay so for some time. The only issues with the age of the book are new details that have been discovered, which further confirm the hypotheses presented in the book. When the book was written, most scientists had been convinced that birds evolve from dinosaurs for many reasons which are mentioned in the book. Since the book has been published, many new feathered dinosaurs have been found which clearly show the relationships in further detail. But the book is not really about the relationships between birds and non-avian dinosaurs, although it discusses them quite well, it is about the experience of the people on an expedition to Madagascar in 1998, what it is like being in the field and the study of some of the fossils that were discovered. If you want to know what it is like to go to another country and dig for dinosaurs, this book will be of interest and should make interesting reading for kids in elementary or middle school.

The expedition was led by Dr. David Krause, a professor at Stony Brook University in New York who has been running paleontological expeditions to Madagascar since the early 1990s and is still doing so, although the book is focused on his colleague, Dr. Cathy Forster, also of Stony Brook (at the time, but now an Associate Professor at George Washington University). She, like Krause, is a noted paleontologist and is likely the focus of the book because of the relative paucity of women in the field sciences. These days, if one goes to a meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, women are well represented, but in the 1990s, most of these women were still students looking to the few women like Dr. Forster who were forging careers.


Rahonavis. cc Wikipedia

The book follows their experiences in the field and the discovery of a particularly interesting bird-like creature they eventually name Rahonavis. The book continues with the team bringing the fossils back, preparing them out of the rock and studying them, coming to the conclusion that the animal was the closest known bird to Archaeopteryx, which is generally considered the earliest known bird. It is so close in fact, that many scientists today consider it actually closer in lineage to the dinosaurs known as dromeosaurs, which include animals like Velociraptor, than it is to birds. This placement is a great demonstration that birds really did evolve from dinosaurs. It is so hard to tell the difference between “dinosaur” and “bird” in the earliest bird-like forms because they are not distinct, separate groups. Birds are merely a subset, a type of dinosaur, in much the same way that mice are rodents, which are also mammals, which are also amniotes, which are also vertebrates, etc. Therefore, whether or not Rohanavis falls out before or after Archaeopteryx in the lineage is a mere detail, changing nothing of the story. It makes as much difference to the evolution of birds as it does which of a set of twins was born first or second, a matter of inconsequential minutes in evolutionary time.

One of the fascinating parts of the book is when Dr. Krause and Dr. Forster discuss the local people helping them. The villagers are very poor, with no access to healthcare or schools. Dr. Krause was concerned enough that he founded the nonprofit Madagascar Ankizy Fund, which supplies needed healthcare to the area, as well as building schools and providing teachers. Dr. Krause and Dr. Forster came to Madagascar to hunt for fossils. But while they have found a great many spectacular finds, perhaps their greatest accomplishment is in the humanitarian work on behalf of the people who live there.

Dinosaur Odyssey: a Journey You Should Take.

Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life

By Scott D. Sampson

Publication date 2009 (hardback) 2011 (paperback). 332 pg. University of California Press. ISBN: 978-0-520-24163-3.

Suitable for junior high students and up.

9780520269897Author: Dr. Sampson is best known these days as Dr. Scott the Paleontologist, from Dinosaur Train on PBS KIDS (a children’s show I can recommend). But he doesn’t just play one on TV, he is a real-life paleontologist, and a well-respected one at that, best known for his work on late Cretaceous dinosaurs in Madagascar and the Grand Staircase-Escalante national Monument. He is Chief Curator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. He has a blog called Whirlpool of Life and can be found on Facebook. Dr. Sampson has had a longstanding interest in public science education, particularly about connecting children with nature. That interest is clearly evident in Dinosaur Odyssey.

This book has been out a few years, but its main message is more deeply relevant now than ever before. This book is not really about dinosaurs. It is about the interconnectedness of all things. Dinosaurs are simply a fascinating hook for discussing ideas about evolution and ecology. If you are looking for a book that just talks about dinosaurs, look elsewhere. But if you want a book that puts dinosaurs in context as part of a complete and ever-changing ecosystem, if you want to learn about the Mesozoic world as a stage upon which dinosaurs are only a part, however awe-inspiring and prominent, of a much larger web of life, this book is for  you. In Dr. Sampson’s hands, dinosaurs are not skeletons of bizarre creatures, they are living organisms interacting with others, changing and being changed by their environment. In a similar vein, our ideas about them are neither set in stone nor idle speculation, they are dynamic and changing, based on new discoveries and scientific understanding, circling ever closer towards a deeper understanding.

The book is written for someone with decent reading ability, but not a dinosaur aficionado. No real prior scientific knowledge is required, simply a desire to learn about the natural world. For those who want more, or find some of the terminology daunting, there is a wealth of notes and references at the end, along with a substantial glossary. The book begins with a short history of the scientific study of life and Sampson’s personal experiences searching for dinosaurs in Madagascar, which led to some of his thinking for the book as an introduction to what follows.  Throughout the book, he uses his personal experiences to enrich the scientific discussions, making it a personal story, not just an academic one. Chapter two is an ambitious glimpse at the history of the universe until the dinosaurs appear, along with a short discussion of the geological principles forming the foundations of our understanding of geologic time. Chapter three introduces the dinosaurs, defining what is meant when a scientist talks about dinosaurs and the different groups of dinosaurs. Along the way, he discusses what species are, how they are named, and how we figure out relationships, although not in detail, just enough for a non-science person to understand the broad concepts. Chapter four discusses the physical world of the Mesozoic in terms of plate tectonics and how the movement of the continents shaped the world and thus the evolutionary history of dinosaurs. He even discusses the role of the atmosphere and oceans in climate. Chapter five builds the basics of ecosystems and nutrient flow, chapter six provides a background in evolutionary theory, chapter seven discusses how dinosaurian herbivores adapted to changing plant communities and how the dinosaur and plant communities may have co-evolved, each influencing the other. Chapter eight adds predators to the mix and chapter nine finishes the ecological chain with decomposers. Chapters ten and eleven discuss sexual selection and metabolism in dinosaurs.

Michael Skrepnick contributed several paintings for the book, such as this one of daspletosaurus attacking an Einiosaurus herd.

Michael Skrepnick contributed several paintings for the book, such as this one of Daspletosaurus attacking an Einiosaurus herd.

The chapters to this point built up how dinosaurs fit into the ecosystem and the workings of evolutionary theory. The next three chapters then take that information and discuss the dinosaurs rise to prominence in the Triassic, development of dinosaur ecosystems in the Jurassic, and their ultimate development through the Cretaceous period. Chapter fifteen, as might be expected, discusses the extinction ending the Mesozoic Era and the dominance of dinosaurs as major players on the world stage.

One might think the book would end at this point. But Sampson has one final chapter to go, which is probably the most important message in the book. He finishes the book by discussing why dinosaurs are important today. We are facing an extinction event equal to the end of the Cretaceous in terms of biodiversity loss, yet few people seem to notice just how comparatively depauperate our global ecosystems are becoming. Because dinosaurs draw peoples’ attention, they are the perfect tool to discuss evolutionary and ecological issues. In this chapter, Sampson discusses how to use dinosaurs to reach people and teach them about our own ecosystems, how we are affecting it and the problems we are facing. In this way, looking at our past through a dinosaurian lens can help us find our way forward.

In the final analysis, this book is a must-read for anyone interested in the natural world and how it works, especially if they love dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs: The Most Complete, Up-to-Date Encyclopedia for Dinosaur Lovers of All Ages.

By Dr. Thomas Holtz, Jr. Illustrated by Luis V. Rey.

Publication date 2007. 427 pg. Random House. ISBN: 978-0-375-82419-7.


Author: Dr. Holtz, self-proclaimed “King of the Dino Geeks,” or as I like to call him Dr. Tyrannosaur, is a well-known and respected paleontologist who’s understanding of all things tyrannosaur is unparalled. As a senior lecturer at the University of Maryland and the Faculty Director of the Science & Global Change Program for the College Park Scholars, he has extensive teaching experience. I have had the pleasure of attending several of his talks at meetings of the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology and he has always been informative and interesting and his students have always been very positive about him.

luis1Illustrator: Luis Rey is an accomplished and respected artist, known especially for his paleo art. He has won the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Lazendorf Award, given to outstanding artists and his artwork can be seen in several museums, books, and other outlets. He is known for very colorful dinosaurs with close attention to anatomical detail. He makes huge efforts to bring dinosaurs to life as actual, living creatures with as much accuracy as possible. A few have criticized his artwork for being too fanciful, in that he draws wattles and other structures on dinosaurs for which we have no hard evidence. But these structures are extremely difficult to preserve in fossils and their living relatives do have them. Matt Wedel, a noted dinosaur researcher in his own right (although he studies sauropods, not theropods like Dr. Holtz) has said, “If you go bold, you won’t be right; whatever you dream up is not going to be the same as whatever outlandish structure the animal actually had. On the other hand, if you don’t go bold, you’ll still be wrong, and now you’ll be boring, too.” Luis Rey has never been called boring.

I decided to start off my reviews with this book, even though it has been out since 2007, because I think every school should have it. There are good reasons it won “Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K to 12: 2008 by the National Science Teachers Association. It is called an encyclopedia and it does have chapters describing all the various dinosaur groups, but it is so much more. It is not a small book and here is my only real criticism of the book. Despite its title, it is not quite a book for all ages (School Library Journal rated it Grade 5 and up and it would take an exceptional 5th grader to read it). If you are looking for a book to read to little kids, look somewhere else. It is called an encyclopedia for a reason. Nevertheless, with that caveat in mind, if you are looking for a book to give your dinosaur-obsessed kid who can read well, this book is for you. It is not just for kids though. Adult dinosaur enthusiasts will like it too.

luis2What I like best about this book is that it does not simply focus on the dinosaurs. There are plenty of books that will give you an A-Z description of dinosaurs. Holtz gives the reader a feel for what paleontology is and how it works. The goal of this book is to explain why we think what we do about them, how we know what we know. He starts off the book discussing how science, particularly as it applies to paleontology. He then has a chapter on the field’s history, followed by three chapters of geology and geologic time to put everything into perspective. Chapters 5-9 discuss how paleontologists find fossils and attempt to reconstruct what they looked like and how they are related to each other. It is not until chapter 10 that he even starts talking about dinosaurs themselves and that chapter simply explains how they are related to other vertebrates. Chapters 11-35 are the meat of the book that everyone would expect. This is where he discusses the amazing diversity of dinosaurs. The last five chapters discuss dinosaur behavior and metabolism and how we approach topics like this that are not so easy to see in the fossils. The last three chapters then put the dinosaurs in context of time and ecology. Contrary to popular opinion, dinosaurs did not all live at the same time. They spanned a vast length of time and these chapters give the reader some sense of what the earth was like during the major time periods, who lived when and what other animals they lived with. The last chapter ends predictably with a discussion of extinction, but rather than just say the asteroid killed them all off, Holtz discusses some of the complications of that hypothesis, finishing off with how life continued after the asteroid impact (including the dinosaurs, who were only mostly dead, not completely dead, a few made it through and thrived as birds). At the end of the book is a series of tables listing all the dinosaurs, including where and when they lived and their estimated size and weight.

curryrogersHoltz doesn’t go it alone either. Scattered throughout the chapters are inserts from other researchers (such as Dr. Kristi Curry Rogers shown here) explaining various topics related to their own research, so the reader gets the perspective of many paleontologists, not just the author’s.

A serious bonus for this book is that Dr. Holtz has attempted to keep the book as current as possible by posting online corrections necessitated by new research, which you can find here.

luis3As a final word, the book is superbly illustrated with numerous drawings, both in monotone and vivid color, by Luis Rey. There are no images of actual fossils, which some have criticized the book for, but my personal feeling is that the book was not designed to be a textbook for dinosaurs. It was designed to show the dinosaurs as living animals, not simply as their bones. There are plenty of other places one can find that. This book is for a view of what they were like alive and most importantly, why we think they were like that shown here and how we study them.

For other reviews of this book, try here, here, here, and here, among others. All illustrations above can be found within the book, as well as the linked sites for Luis Rey and Dr. Rogers.


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