Whenever I’ve reviewed books from the United States in the past, it’s tended to be because a kind reader has either scanned their pages, or simply sent me the whole thing via international mail. (Thanks again, Herman!) This one, however, turned up rather unexpectedly on eBay, sold by an online second-hand bookshop in the UK. It’s part of the ‘Honey Bear Books’ series published by Modern Publishing (“a division of Unisystems, Inc.” of New York), which appears to have been a range of titles churned out with the aim of encouraging young children to read. A noble aim, but they might at least have employed a consultant…
As it’s an American publication, I have absolutely zero nostalgic (or indeed, any) memories of this book from my childhood, although it was published at the right sort of time – 1993. I’d therefore be very interested in hearing from anyone out there who does remember it, or indeed, the artwork within, which appears to have been entirely recycled from 1980s titles. The cover, though, is unique to this book, and features a pleasingly vibrant design by Mark Kurtz. Rather curiously, its stylised approach is completely at odds with all the illustrations inside, giving the reader very little idea of what to expect. Other than, you know, dinosaurs (and pterosaurs, and maybe the odd psychedelic lizard).
The book consists of a series of profiles of dinosaurs andprehistoriccreatures, in a seemingly random order. The lack of any kind of ordering here (when it could so easily have been done by time period, clade, or just alphabetically) is enough to make me clench my teeth together in irritation in the manner that my dentist keeps telling me to try and stop. Or maybe I’ve just spent too long around library catalogues and databases in the last few years.
In any case, at least the first animal to feature begins with A – Ankylosaurus! As shown above, it’s clearly modeled on Euoplocephalus as understood then, but that was pretty normal well into the 1990s (this illustration dates from 1984). This is definitely one of the better illustrations here, conveying the animal’s squat, wide stance, making it appear alert (pretty unusual for an ankylosaur at that time) and fleshing out its world a little with some background hadrosaurs. It’s not a Burian Scolosaurus clone, and for that we should be very grateful. This illustration, as with all the others, is credited simply to “Rourke Enterprises”. How annoying.
Next up is Nothosaurus, depicted walking through a lovingly painted cave that appears to be collapsing, adding a little dramatic interest to the scene. Having looked into it a little, it appears that this illustration (along with most of the others) was recycled from the ‘Dinosaur Library’ series from Rourke, which would explain the unusually ‘distracting’ elements in what is ostensibly an identity parade – it’s been taken out of its original context. In any case, in this context, I really like the extra intrigue this provides to what might otherwise have been a very dull piece.
And speaking of dull, here’s Stegosaurus eating a fern while a Burianesque retro Diplodocus wanders by in the background. At least the greenery is rather pleasing, and the animals look convincingly like living beings – I can imagine experienced wildlife artists being behind these. But we can’t know who, ‘cos it’s all credited to an agency. Boo!
The book’s Dimetrodon is competently executed for the time (1984), and I very much appreciate that it’s hanging around near the water in a forested environment, rather than in a generic desertscape. It’s quite well-proportioned and hangs together well as a living animal. However, it’s here that the book’s text (by Michael Teitelbaum) goes a little off the rails, claiming that “this ten-foot-long meat-eater was a member of the Spinosaurid family”. I mean, I know it was the early ’90s, but…how? Any remotely authoritative popular book would have said otherwise.
The weirdness continues with Diplodocus, which Teitelbaum claims “was one of the Titanosaurs,” a group known for “long, narrow skulls and nostrils high on their heads.” Now, I realise sauropods have gone through quite a few taxonomic rejiggles in the last 30 years, but when did anyone ever think that? (This is naturally the point at which someone pops up and cites a letter published in an obscure magazine in 1986, written by a microbiologist with a passing interest in tetrapods with copious cervical vertebrae.)
Oh yeah, and the art is pretty weird, too. Although still credited to Rourke Enterprises, the naturalistic, wildlife artist style has vanished, to be replaced with blobby nonsense-o-saurs with feet and limbs that don’t quite make sense, gouging chunks out of each other. All the same, there’s something to be said for the charmingly naïve style of it – just look at the way the blood forms neat teardrop shapes as it runs down the sauropod’s leathery hide. I don’t think the artist was aiming for strict realism, somehow.
Another sauropod is next, Mamenchisaurus, and this piece is much more in keeping with the more classical-realist approach we’ve seen previously. Again, the foliage here is very well done, and the blue-tinged nighttime ambience makes this one of the more memorable pieces to appear. It’s also definitely from one of the aforementioned ‘Dinosaur Library’ books. I have a feeling that at least some entries from that series may have been covered in LITC’s primordial days by Blogfather David, but it’s probably worth looking into them again…
Protoceratops is next, and although obviously dated scientifically, there is a convincing heft and solidity to this creature that’s indicative of a talented wildlife artist. It appears to convincingly inhabit its surroundings, rather than being an overgrown dinosaur toy stuck onto a generic backdrop. The differing scalation on the limbs, body, and tail also indicate that the artist had put some thought into how the animal might have evolved, as well as providing visual interest. I rather like it.
This very Burianesque Dimorphodon I’m not so sure about, although it’s certainly beautifully painted. Not to mention very, very hairy, which is what we like to see.
The naïve stylings of the Diplodocus artist appear to return with the above Triceratops piece. An attempt is at least made to depict the animals from different perspectives, and there’s an interesting little bit of intraspecific interaction going on in the background. The individual in the front, though, seems to be suffering from a terrible case of Frill Collapse. No wonder it’s looking a little sad. At least John McLoughlin would have approved.
And finally…Tyrannosaurus and crocodilians crowding a carcass, as depicted by a Rourke artist in 1989. With the ripping and tearing and blood and blarargarg. These tyrannosaurs are really extraordinarily Zallingerian (and crude) for the late 1980s, and the whole thing has the appearance of being a little rushed, what with its complete lack of background detail to speak of. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was cut out of the background of an illustration from one of those Dinosaur Library books, once again.
That’s it for this one! No, really, that’s the whole book – it was aimed at very young readers, after all. Next time I should have my hands on something much more substantial, and with far less recycled material, but also from the 1980s. Just as soon as I’ve prised it out of my girlfriend’s hands.