October 31, 2013


The Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs. By Robert T. Bakker, Ph.D. Illustrated by Luis V. Rey. Golden Books. $16.99.

The Watermelon Seed. By Greg Pizzoli. Disney/Hyperion. $16.99.

Hush, Little Horsie. By Jane Yolen. Illustrated by Ruth Sanderson. Random House. $7.99.

     Paleontologist Robert Bakker, whose wide-ranging and sometimes controversial theories about dinosaurs are a significant element in modern thinking about them, brings those ideas to children in the 3-7 age range through a well-written book whose narrative is more challenging than the norm for this age group – and whose illustrations, by well-known paleoartist Luis V. Rey, incorporate the most modern findings and scientific understanding of what dinosaurs looked like and how they lived. Bakker knows how to get to his audience: “Some dinosaurs were heavier than two dozen elephants duct-taped together.” And he knows how to show young children the ways in which science advances, for example when explaining how and why scientists in the 19th century made serious mistakes while trying to figure out what one dinosaur, Megalosaurus, looked like – a section in which Rey’s “megalosaur wrong” and “megalosaur corrected” illustrations are particularly outstanding in their contrast. Bakker does a wonderful job of showing how the study of dinosaurs is in part a mystery story, as scientists piece together – generally from pieces of dinosaurs! – information on how the dinos lived and what they looked like. Bakker even takes young children along on this journey of exploration, for example by explaining how the search for dinosaur footprints in the 1830s led an early paleontologist to conclude that Jurassic predators were, in effect, colossal birds. Continuing uncertainties about dinosaurs get their due in this book as well. For instance, there is the question of how it was possible for dinosaurs to live in what is now Alaska, and how fossil leaves, in providing at least part of the answer, make it more likely that carnivores had feathers. And there is of course the extinction question, in which Bakker explains why he does not accept the prevailing hypothesis about a huge meteorite strike killing off the dinosaurs and instead believes that and other theories may need to be combined to arrive at the truth. Bakker also does a fine job of connecting prehistory with young children’s world today, by showing how mammals evolved during the age of dinosaurs and then began to dominate the world after dinosaurs were gone – thus explaining how “the dinosaur story is really our story, too.” The Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs tackles a large and complex subject in clear, understandable form, and hopefully will serve as an introduction for yet another generation of young people to prehistoric creatures that continue to fascinate so many of us today.

     Crocodilians are among the dinosaur-era groups that survived the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous and continued evolving until today. And they certainly look dinosaur-like to most people. But as big and powerful as real crocodiles and their relatives are, they have also become favorites in children’s books, thanks to artists who make them much smaller and rounder than they are in real life and give them problems to handle that only seem large. Done well, as in Greg Pizzoli’s The Watermelon Seed, a crocodile-based book for very young readers can be thoroughly delightful, thanks to the humor of the story and the fact that the croc is really just a stand-in for a child. The particular croc in Pizzoli’s book absolutely loves eating watermelon – indeed, the chance to write “CHOMP! CHOMP! CHOMP!” in big letters may have influenced Pizzoli to choose a crocodile as protagonist in the first place. The croc’s problem is a small one indeed: a watermelon seed that he accidentally swallows. Oh no! Now he starts imagining all the things that are going to happen to him: vines coming out of his ears, his skin turning watermelon pink, and so on. The poor croc gets so upset that he start crying (yes, crocodile tears, although this is a book for very young children and Pizzoli makes no overt reference to them). But then, wonder of wonders, a burp! And the seed comes out, and the croc decides he had such a close call that he is done with watermelon forever – well, except for “maybe just a teeny, tiny bite.” With seeds, of course. The Watermelon Seed is fun from start to finish, and can even be used by parents as an object lesson in not overreacting to small things.

     The small things in Jane Yolen’s lovely, gentle board book, Hush, Little Horsie, are colts, each rendered beautifully by Ruth Sanderson in more-than-realistic style – that is, each is drawn anatomically accurately, but portrayed with an extra-high level of focus on the eyes, the body position and other elements to which Sanderson, interpreting Yolen’s text, wants to draw attention. Those elements all have to do with sleep – this is a bedtime book from start to finish, with each rhyme about horses in a different place ending, “And when you are tired,/ She’ll watch as you sleep.” Beautifully colored horses of various types are seen in the barn, out on the plain, at the seashore and elsewhere, the gentle cadences of Yolen’s rhymes mixing soothingly with the warmth of Sanderson’s illustrations to produce an overall feeling of quiet, relaxation and motherly protection. The book ends with a human mother and her daughter on the little girl’s bed, in a horse-themed child’s room, as the mother assures her daughter that she will be watching over the sleeping girl – who drifts off, cuddling a stuffed horse, into a dream of the horses seen earlier in the book. Obviously intended only for children with strong equine interests, Hush, Little Horsie will for them be a sweet little bedtime tale, comforting and tender and thoroughly relaxing.

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