July 26, 2007


Uneversaurus. By Professor Potts. David Fickling Books. $16.99.

Harry and the Dinosaurs Go to School. By Ian Whybrow. Illustrations by Adrian Reynolds. Random House. $15.99.

      The title of Uneversaurus takes some getting used to (‘you never saw us,” see?), and it takes a while for Aidan Potts (writing as “Professor Potts”) to get to the subject on which he wants to focus. But once Potts gets there, he serves up an utterly entrancing look at a major dinosaur puzzle that few books for young people ever discuss: what color were dinosaurs? To scientists, this is a far-from-trivial question; it is also an unanswerable one. The fossilization process preserves many things, as Potts explains in this book’s first pages. Scientists can use clues from their findings to show what dinosaurs must have looked like – for example, “bumps and grooves on the bones are clues to show where the muscles were, and the joints reveal how they moved.” But there is simply no way to know what colors dinosaurs sported. Skin color does not survive fossilization, and nothing that does survive gives even a hint of it. So scientists are reduced to guesswork – educated guesswork, perhaps, but the young readers of this book can probably make guesses just as good as some of those made by scientists. Potts shows how: look at living animals that seem similar to dinosaurs (which, as he says, include modern reptiles – but also, as he does not say, could include birds, which would open up a host of colorful possibilities); understand what survival benefits different colorations provide (various forms of camouflage, for example); consider the world as it was when dinosaurs lived, to think about what colors would have fit in; and so on. Potts manages to communicate some fairly complex scientific concepts without ever becoming didactic: he tosses in cartoonish dinos here and there to lighten things up, and shows by example why certain colors would not have worked (for instance, there was much less snow when dinosaurs lived, so a white dino, one of which Potts draws, would stand out too brightly to survive). Potts includes fascinating speculation on whether male and female dinosaurs were differently colored, whether some might have been chameleonlike, whether their colors faded as they aged, and more. One of the best things about this book is that there are no right or wrong answers to its puzzles – Potts specifically encourages young readers to guess, which means to think about the question, which means to use their minds, not merely absorb information.

      For a more traditional young people’s book about dinosaurs, try the latest from Ian Whybrow and Adrian Reynolds, Harry and the Dinosaurs Go to School. This series entry gets a solid (+++) rating for tackling some basic issues about the first day of school entertainingly, while keeping Harry and his beloved bucket of make-believe-but-real-to-him dinosaurs in the center of the tale. The story is simple enough: Harry is a little scared about the first day of school, so his dinos are scared, too, and Harry takes them along – but leaves them outside his classroom. Then Harry notices another little boy who is even more scared – he will not talk at all. Thanks to the dinosaurs (whose real, scientific names Harry always uses – that is one of the charms of this series), Harry makes friends with the silent boy, who eventually does indeed have something to say. It’s something dinosaur-like, of course. The gentle humor of this series, and the attractively low-key presentation of its messages, make Harry and his dinosaurs a real treat for young children – even if the dinos’ accurate names are in no way reflected in their highly fanciful (and decidedly non-threatening) appearance.

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