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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.

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