Home » Reviews » Book reviews » Dinosaurs by Aliki, Part 2

Dinosaurs by Aliki, Part 2

Last post, I reviewed two books by Aliki Brandenberg, called Fossils Tell of Long Ago and Dinosaur Bones. They mostly got good ratings, despite being 25 or more years old. They are still better than many books that are much more current. This time I will look at two more, Digging Up Dinosaurs and Dinosaurs are Different. These books are even older, but Digging Up Dinosaurs continues to be a favorite book by many, despite its age.

Digging Up Dinosaurs

alikidiggingdinos1by Aliki Brandenberg

Publication Date: 1981, 1988

Harper Collins Publishers. ISBN: 0-690-04714-2, 0-06-445078-3 (pbk)

AR Book Level: 3.6

This book covers much the same ground as the first two books, but focuses on the path from living dinosaur to being on display in a museum. Appropriately then, the book starts with her in a museum looking at Apatosaurus, or as she states, once known as Brontosaurus. She also looks at a few other dinosaur skeletons, which are mostly drawn reasonably well, although the Tyrannosaurus rex is in the old and inaccurate Godzilla pose.

Drawn by Darren Naish. Available through him on a T-shirt.

Drawn by Darren Naish. Available through him on a T-shirt.

The next page briefly discusses dinosaurs in general. Sadly, this page does not hold up well, despite its generality. The dinosaurs are drawn in old, toy-like fashion that would not have been considered accurate in the 1980s, much less now. This book suffers the most from inaccurate and simplistic drawings. The dinosaurs are drawn with “bunny hands”, in upright poses dragging their tails, and featherless, along with other problems, such as the giant sauropods having their noses on top of their heads. Even during the 1980s, the drawings were somewhat anachronistic. Now, they are woefully out of date. For a good description of the changes that have gone on in dinosaur art based on new science, check out this article by Darren Naish.

Other problems this page has is the description of some dinosaurs being as small as birds. Yes, because birds are dinosaurs. That was known then, but was not as widely accepted as it is now. So the statement “there hasn’t been a dinosaur around for 65 million years” is not accurate. We also have a much better, if not completely understood, idea of why they became extinct.

The next part of the book talks about people finding fossils and a bit of early dinosaur paleontology history. There is a good, dynamic description of what fossils are and how they form. One complaint here is that paleontology is limited to the study of the fossils, a problem that runs throughout the book. The book does discuss many different jobs needed to collect fossils, but they all focus on collecting, preparing, and studying the fossils. If that were true, we would know very little indeed. Fortunately, study by people throughout the sciences, especially the study of modern organisms, help inform us about dinosaurs and tell us much more than the bones ever could by themselves.


The book continues with a description of finding fossils, what it takes to collect them, and get them back to the museum. Most fossils don’t actually go to museums, but the emphasis here is on the fossils that people see in museums, so we can skip over that detail. These pages illustrate a lot of the back-breaking work involved in digging up a dinosaur. The book also illustrates some of the problems that must be carefully considered during the process, such as getting fragile fossils out of the rock and shipping them to the museum without further damage, and some of the ways those problems are solved.

Once at the museum, there is much work studying the fossils to figure out what they are, which is displayed mostly by scientists looking at a fossil and proclaiming what it is. Sadly, that is exactly what a lot of people think, ignoring the hard work and real science that goes on before any proclamations are made and they are rarely made so definitively as presented. To be fair, the text explains more of the process and makes it much less like arrogant scientists making guesses. The illustrations do not do the words justice.

Photo by Kyle Davies. Baby Apatosaurus bone cast made at the  Sam Noble Museum.

Photo by Kyle Davies. Baby Apatosaurus bone cast made at the Sam Noble Museum.

The book ends with noting that molds are made from the bones from the better specimens, so that copies can be made. These fiberglass (or plastic) copies are what is seen on display in most museums, but they look just like the original. This is an important point. Many people assume that if it isn’t the real bone, it is “fake”. Unfortunately, they use fake for both a copy of an original and something that is not real, and they usually confuse the two meanings. To be clear, these copies are NOT fake. They are more appropriately termed replicas. They are not the actual bone, but they look just the same. Because this is such a common mistake, it is great to see the actual process described here.

The other thing shown here, which makes this last part the best part of the entire book, is an illustration of a discussion among some scientists in the background. They are talking about new ideas and discoveries and make the important comment that if the ideas are confirmed, they will have to change their model. Changing what we think in the face of new evidence is the essential ingredient in science. This illustration not only shows the benefits of the fiberglass copies, but it shows real science in action.

Dinosaurs Are Different

alikidinosdiff1by Aliki Brandenberg

Publication Date: 1985

Harper Collins Publishers. ISBN: 0-690-04456-9, 0-06-445056-2 (pbk)

AR Book Level: 3.6

Dinosaurs Are Different introduces the diversity of dinosaurs to kids, breaking up a nebulous, homogeneous concept of “dinosaur” into an array of different types. It does a good job of showing different types of dinosaurs. It also nicely shows pterosaurs as being related to, but not actually being dinosaurs. The book, to its credit, gives a clear and succinct of the characteristics that scientists use to categorize the dinosaurs. So at this level, the book succeeds well. There are some problems in the details, though, because the science has moved on.

The biggest problem this book has, as in the previous book, is the illustrations that show the dinosaurs in a woefully antiquated style. The postures retain the slow, ponderous, tail-dragging poses that were popular before the 70s when we started learning more about dinosaurs. John Ostrom‘s work on Deinonychus began the revival of the idea that birds evolved from dinosaurs and, along with it, the view that dinosaurs were not the slow reptiles of yore, but active, dynamic animals. The more active view really became widely accepted when Jurassic Park hit the movie screens (although Jurassic Park committed the faux-paus of bunny hands and fatherless raptors as well). Since then, even more changes have covered more and more dinosaurs in feathers. As a result, the illustrations look painfully anachronistic. On the plus side, she still draws kids talking about related things and they are well worth reading.


The book starts with a brief discussion of observations on the skeletons that the teeth indicated diet, nicely done for little kids. It then talks about differences in hip structure. This is the chief characteristic separating the two main groups of dinosaurs and she does a great job of explaining the hip types and how they are used to categorize the dinosaurs into saurischians (lizard-hipped) and ornithischians (bird-hipped). She talks about how both dinosaur groups, along with crocodilians, are part of the group called archosaurs, the “ruling reptiles”. So far, so good. I like this discussion because it shows some of the steps scientists really use to figure out relationships in fossils.

But then some problems arise. Thecodonts are described as the ancestors of both groups of dinosaurs, crocodilians and pterosaurs. In the illustration (and text), she properly indicates that pterosaurs are not dinosaurs like they are often shown. However, she makes it appear that the different groups of dinosaurs are no more closely related to each other than they are to pterosaurs and crocodilians. We now know that “thecodonts” did not constitute a real group, meaning that it contained many animals that were not really related to each other and so it is no longer recognized; it holds no place in modern discussions. All archosaurs arose from a small group within what was traditionally called thecodonts and moreover, all share a common ancestor. From that ancestor, the crocodilians split off, then the pterosaurs, leaving the dinosaurs, which only then split into the two groups.

Egg-laying mammals

Egg-laying mammals

There is a page in here that hits a particular sore point with me. It is a discussion between a boy and a girl talking about what dinosaurs are. They talk about dinosaurs being reptiles and then lists several characteristics reptiles have. This is a problem because not all reptiles have these characteristics and because scientifically, animals are generally not defined by superficial characteristics like this. If at all possible, organisms are classified according to their relationships as far as we know them. A platypus lays eggs, but that does not make it a reptile. Many lizards bear live young (there is even a frog that does this), but they are still reptiles. Nevertheless, it continues to be a major challenge getting people to understand this, that organisms can not be properly classified according to what they look like.

The second half of the discussion is much better as it moves into how reptiles are broadly categorized by the type of skull they have. This is a sophisticated point for a book geared to kids and she handles it well, considering her target audience. Sadly, she makes  a blunder. She calls synapsids reptiles. When the book was published, it was still common (and sadly, is still such in some circles) to call synapsids “mammal-like reptiles.” There is only one small problem. They weren’t reptiles. Amniotes, animals that lay eggs capable of surviving on land, are split into two main groups: the synapsids and the reptiles (often called Sauropsida because of all the baggage that comes with the term reptile). You may guess by that split that mammals are synapsids and you would be right. Now at the earliest stages, would you have been able to tell them apart? Not really. They both would have looked much like reptiles. But there were important changes that sent them careening off onto very different evolutionary paths.

Moving on, we get to really good parts of the book. The predentary, a bone at the front of the lower jaw, as a characteristic of ornithischians and its relationship with herbivory is well discussed. As the book goes into the saurischians, the differences between the two main groups, the sauropods and theropods are shown well.

Unfortunately, time once again rears its ugly head as progressed marched on. The simplistic definition of coelurosaurs and carnosaurs as little theropods and big theropods, respectively, is completely wrong today. We now know that theropods changed sizes radically several times. It is no longer possible to split them up by size anymore that makes any evolutionary sense. It is also no longer true that all theropods ate meat as we now know some that were herbivores, most notably the therizinosaurs, which admittedly, were not really known when the book was written. It however, can be said that MOST theropods were carnivores.

giant coelurosaurs

Giant coelurosaurs. Artist unknown, if you do, please contact me.


The relationships within the Ornithischia are now very different than what is described in this book. The book describes four major groups: ornithopods, ceratopsians, stegosaurs, and ankylosaurs. There is a good discussion of hadrosaurs as ornithopods. However, unlike the book states, psittacosaurs and pachycephalosaurs are not ornithopods. Psittacosaurs are considered to be one of the earliest ceratopsians, the lineage that includes Triceratops. Pachycephalosaurs, the bone-headed dinosaurs, are also placed in a group with ceratopsians called marginocephalians. Ornithopods are are completely separate group of ornithischians. Stegosaurs and ankylosaurs are also now thought to be more closely related to each other than to the rest of the Ornithischians. New fossils have also told us how the plates on Stegosaurus were positioned (up in two rows). We also have a much better understanding for why they had them, which applies to all the rest of the groups as well. The numerous and fancy head ornaments, plates, and spikes were most likely primarily as sexual displays. They may have had secondary uses in defense, offense, or cooling, but they were primarily display structures.

The last page is a list of the different types of dinosaurs and their diet. Time and new discoveries has made this list far more diverse than Aliki could have imagined 30 years ago.

In conclusion, would I recommend the books? Yes, despite their flaws. They cover several concepts well. Digging Up Dinosaurs holds up a bit better, but both suffer from outmoded drawings and advances in our understandings of dinosaur relationships. But these flaws, if recognized, can be usefully used as valuable teaching moments to talk about how science is a dynamic field, how what we know is constantly being reevaluated based on new evidence, helping us to test and refine our ideas. Comparing the book to a more modern book would make an interesting and informative educational experience.


  1. Herman Diaz says:

    “This is a problem because not all reptiles have these characteristics and because scientifically, animals are generally not defined by superficial characteristics like this. If at all possible, organisms are classified according to their relationships as far as we know them.”

    That’s why when I talk to laypeople, I usually refer to reptiles as “4-legged backboned animals characterized by keratin scales (among other things).” Also, when asked why something (E.g. Pterosauria) isn’t part of a certain group (E.g. Dinosauria), I say, “B/c all dinos (including birds) share a common ancestor & certain features inherited from that ancestor (E.g. An open hip socket). Pterosaurs lack these features (which is how we know they’re not dinos.”

    “Comparing the book to a more modern book would make an interesting and informative educational experience.”

    Out of curiosity, what modern books are the best matches for theses 4 Aliki books IYO?

  2. paleoaerie says:

    That is an excellent question. I’ve been looking at the books I have and those which which I am familiar, but I don’t know of one that is comparable. The more modern books are either written for a higher grade level, with more flash and details, are focused on a smaller subject, or are written for a younger audience and are so simplistic they barely say anything.
    The Aliki books seem to cover a middle ground that is rarely touched on by other authors. As such, despite the time-induced flaws, they hold a unique place. There are lots of books I don’t know about, so there may be a good one out there, I just don’t know them.
    Perhaps it’s time for someone to write an updated variant. I might consider doing it, but I can’t draw, which for a book like this, is important. As Darren Naish pointed out, authors have no control over the art at major publishing houses, but I’m not sure I would want to go that route anyway these days.

Comments are welcomed, although please be considerate. This site is moderated and rudeness will be ruthlessly eliminated.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: