February 26, 2009


The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins. By Barbara Kerley. Drawings by Brian Selznick. Scholastic. $8.99.

Crocodile Safari. By Jim Arnosky. Scholastic. $22.99.

     A remarkable book about a remarkable man, The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins is an exciting intellectual adventure that takes young readers back to a time before everyone was familiar with dinosaurs’ appearance – telling the tale of the man who first gave people an idea of what the prehistoric creatures looked like. Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1894) was a British sculptor and natural-history artist who was commissioned in 1853 to create 33 life-sized replicas of dinosaurs under the direction of Sir Richard Owen and other leading Victorian scientists. Hawkins’ models were astonishing, and Barbara Kerley’s book – aided enormously by Brian Selznick’s illustrations, many of which are based on Hawkins’ own sketches – vividly brings them to life. The book brings Hawkins to life, too, and what a life it was. Kerley divides it into three parts: London, America and Home Again. The first includes Hawkins’ early career and his initial construction of dinosaur models – and climaxes with Hawkins’ most unusual idea of all, which was to hold a New Year’s Eve dinner for more than 20 people, on December 31, 1853, inside his iguanodon model. The second section is about Hawkins’ ill-fated trip to America, where he intended to create dinosaur models for a museum in New York City, but where he ran afoul of infamous Tammany Hall leader “Boss” Tweed, who wrecked his models and had the pieces buried somewhere in Central Park (where they remain, in unknown locations, to this day). The third section of the book involves Hawkins’ return to England and the emerging knowledge that some of his models were not accurate, in light of new scientific discoveries – a state of affairs that fascinated Hawkins rather than dismaying him. It did indeed turn out that Hawkins’ models – many of which are still viewable at a museum in England – were incorrect; but they were remarkable design and engineering achievements, and gave the public its first look at the extinct animals that ruled the planet for so long. The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins is, finally, an uplifting story about scientific discovery and the persistence, despite reversals, of those involved in it. Kerley’s and Selznick’s afterwords, and a final page comparing Hawkins’ models with what certain dinosaurs are now thought to have looked like, add to the fascination of a thoroughly engrossing book.

     Crocodilians are a kind of living dinosaur: they existed in the dinosaur age and survived its end. But the American crocodile – the subject of Jim Arnosky’s Crocodile Safari – almost didn’t make it through its encounters with human beings: fewer than 300 of the animals were left when the species was classified as endangered. It is no longer listed that way in the United States, where it has recovered smartly, although it remains endangered in other areas where it lives (Mexico, the Caribbean, and parts of Central and South America). American crocodiles remain elusive in any case. Arnosky takes readers through a South Florida safari in which he and his wife, Deanna, roamed the Everglades looking for crocodiles, eventually spotting 20 of them. American crocodiles are different from and rarer than American alligators, and Arnosky clearly explains and illustrates how they differ. Crocodile Safari reads a bit like a diary, with Arnosky noting time, weather and tide for each spotting and showing, through well-executed drawings, where he saw the crocodiles – starting with a group of three perched on the hulls of discarded rowboats. Arnosky works in information on the reptiles’ feeding habits and the flora and fauna amid which they live; and he talks about a couple of unusual finds, including a toothless crocodile (which had to be very old: the animals regrow teeth until they reach old age) and a foot-long crocodile baby. The book concludes with the music and lyrics of a song that Arnosky wrote about crocodiles, and a bonus 22-minute CD bound into the back cover gives Arnosky’s impressions additional life and liveliness. The mixture of observational seriousness with lighthearted enjoyment makes Crocodile Safari very pleasantly distinctive – hopefully encouraging young readers to plan their own in-the-wild viewings someday, since all the crocodiles counted by Arnosky were seen in areas that anyone can visit.

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