March 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Big, Bigger, Biggest | Dinosaur Delights

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Stunning illustrations, clearly presented information, and an imaginative approach characterize the recent crop of titles about dinosaurs and prehistoric beasts. These enticing nonfiction books open a window to the extraordinary animals that walked the earth eons ago, grabbing youngsters’ imaginations with incredible images and tantalizing facts. Some of the offerings also shed light on the scientific process by describing how researchers discover and study fossils, make conjectures about the past, and update findings in a field that is continually moving forward.

The Biggest and the Greatest
Lita Judge mixes playful artwork, accessible language, and easy-to-comprehend comparisons to answer a question frequently posed by kids: How Big Were Dinosaurs? (Roaring Brook, 2013; K-Gr 3). A dozen dazzling dinos are introduced on delectable double-spreads, beginning with the aptly named Microraptor (barely tall enough to “look a modern-day chicken in the eye”) and growing gradually larger to culminate with the four-school-bus-long Argentinosaurus (an animal an astonishing “45,000 times BIGGER than Microraptor”). Bright-hued cartoon artwork humorously depicts these prehistoric beasts in updated scenarios that not only elicit giggles but also support the facts woven into the lighthearted text: a fast-running Struthiomimus leads a pack of race horses; a woman shoos a gargantuan Tsintaosaurus out of her vegetable garden with a broom; and a toothy Velociraptor (which, despite its menacing reputation, was “only the size of a dog”) bounds along on a leash with tail-wagging enthusiasm (while a canine companion comically cowers nearby). An author’s note explains how scientists gather information and make summations, and a four-page fold-out includes all of the featured creatures and brings home the vast differences in size.

In Brenda Z. Guiberson and Gennady Spirin’s exquisite picture book, representatives from 12 prehistoric species utilize lively first-person text to tout their unique characteristics and assert their status as The Greatest Dinosaur Ever (Holt, 2013; Gr 1-4). They each have a reasonable claim to fame: Tyrannosaurus rex flaunts its bone-smashing bite (“With a single crunch, I could crush and swallow 500 pounds of food”); Therizinosaurus shows off “weird, gigantic arms” adorned with three-foot-long plant-mowing claws; Ankylosaurus brags about best armor (“My body was covered with bony plates, spikes, and horns”); and Troodon hypes its smarts (“With large eyes and extra brainpower, I could spot creatures hiding in the shadows and hunt when it was dark”). Majestic full-spread illustrations show each dinosaur in its habitat, surrounded by lush vegetation, rough rock face, or soaring seaside cliffs. Filled with finely wrought details, a variety of textures, and earthy hues, the oil paintings blend realism with fancy to provide a vivid glimpse into the past.

Showcasing many of the same species, these fun-to-read-aloud books make a useful pairing for classroom use. Share the titles with students and have them extract key details from both the texts and illustrations; make a chart of each dinosaur’s characteristics on the board. Each of these offerings takes a unique approach to the subject matter in both narrative tone and illustrative style. Have students make comparisons: what are the similarities and differences between the two works? How do the authors and illustrators convey information? Form students into small groups and have them choose one of the featured species and investigate further by exploring books, encyclopedias, and online resources. Each group can compile their research and make a presentation to the class.

Fun-to-View Overviews
Packed with clearly presented information and spectacular images, The Big Book of Dinosaurs (TickTock, 2013; Gr 3-6) will captivate browsers and support young researchers. Dougal Dixon tackles an array of burning questions from just what is a dinosaur (defining characteristics are listed and helpfully depicted in a labelled illustration) to “How did the dinosaurs become extinct?” Spreads illustrated with photos and colorful artwork explore general dino features and abilities, particular species, descriptions of the geological periods, famous fossil discoveries, and more. Throughout, words and images are effectively blended to aid comprehension: photos of a tyrannosaur egg and a soccer ball are paired together to convey size; an Iguanodon’s hand, with its combo of multipurpose fingers, is compared visually and verbally to a Swiss Army Knife with attachments extended; and a large-size fossil photo of a fighting Velociraptor and Protoceratops is presented along with a fleshed-out painting that brings the battle to life. There are plenty of fascinating facts to be found, and kids can locate particulars by utilizing the book’s index and subheadings.

Made from durable card stock, an offering from DK introduces seven Amazing Giant Dinosaurs (2012; Gr 2-5) with attention-grabbing visual kapow. Each spread features two full-page flaps that open to an L-shape to reveal a realistic-looking digital rendering of the species in its natural environment. Splashed and speckled with neon-bright colors, the illustrations are truly dramatic: a Giganotosaurus brandishes blood-tinted teeth as it looms over its prey (entrails exposed); two Suchomimus feed at a waterfall, one with fresh-caught fish in mouth; a spike-covered Euoplocephalus staves of a T. rex with its impressive club-shaped tail. Each profusely illustrated at-a-glance entry includes “Dino File” basics (size stats, name meaning, movement, time line, etc.) along with tidbits about habitat and locale, diet, unique characteristics, and more. Clearly labeled fossil photos appear throughout, and the well-chosen images are not only eye-catching, but also enhance understanding.

Digging Deeper
Two offerings delve more deeply into specific topics while shining light on how scientists evaluate fossil evidence to draw conclusions, new technologies used in research, and the fact that paleontology remains an ever-evolving field. In Scaly Spotted Feathered Frilled (Houghton Harcourt, 2013; Gr 5-8), Catherine Thimmesh takes on the question, “how do we know what dinosaurs really looked like?” Featuring commentary and artwork from renowned experts, this fascinating book describes how paleoartists piece together information gleaned from fossils, plant studies, geological studies, and other scientific evidence, and knowledge of comparative anatomy and animal behavior, to create “the most accurate representation possible.” A bit of history is provided, and the text shows how earlier depictions have been rendered obsolete by new scientific findings. Also tackled are subjects such as how artists reconstruct skulls, determine muscle size, render facial expression, settle on skin texture, and make their best guesses about coloration (though color does not get preserved in fossils, new technologies may eventually provide more info). The text is genially readable, with an irresistible enthusiasm for the topic that invites youngsters to jump into the field and make their own discoveries. The striking paintings reflect each artist’s style as well as their knowledge of science and provide varying visions of the long-ago world.

Christopher Sloan’s Tracking Tyrannosaurs (National Geographic, 2013; Gr 5-8) introduces not only the famed tyrant lizard king but also the amazingly diverse members of its extended family. Recent fossil findings reveal a variety of species sporting “large crests, long snouts, and horny faces” (and even an unusually gigantic feathered beast found in China in 2011), indicating that tyrannosaurs did not simply “evolve in a straight line from small to large” as believed and are closely connected to birds. Double-page spreads introduce assorted species by describing physical attributes and behavior, habitat, and where and how they were found. A final chapter covers how scientists use CT scans, computer modeling and biomechanics, and microbiology techniques and powerful microscopes to study dinosaurs. Handsome paintings by Xing Lida and Liu Yi reveal an array of razor-toothed cousins adorned with scales and/or feathers, mostly stalking or feasting upon prey. Helpful family-tree visuals are presented, and charts show each species’ size in comparison to both a T. rex and a human. Interesting photos include a model of a T. rex skull chomping and smashing an ostrich bone, and CT scan of the real thing.

Have students compare and contrast these two texts. Kids can extract key details to describe how reconstructed images are created and utilized to convey information and speculate about the past. How do paleontologists work and how is their research conducted? What are the latest developments and technologies used in searching for and fossils and extracting their hidden secrets?

Get Creative
Educators interested in making connections across the curriculum can inspire their students with offering that combine solid research with creativity and artistry. Sharon Werner and Sarah Forss’s Alphasaurs and Other Prehistoric Types (Blue Apple, 2012; K-Gr 5) presents an ABC of long-ago beasts. For each critter, a bold typographic image utilizing only the first letter of its name has been concocted out of upper and lower case characters in varying sizes and typefaces with astoundingly vivacious results. Made of mostly black-ink letters, Allosaurus’s front teeth and claws are indicated by red capital A’s with sharp side out; jackrabbit-sized Jinfengopteryx springs along with a graceful J-plumed tail; and Kentrosaurus’s spikes are represented by pointy-edged gothic-style K’s. Delicately crafted fold-outs add to the effect and keep the surprises coming. Brief facts about each reptile are presented in similarly lettered, amusingly alliterative sentences (“Spinosaurus’s spine sported a sail-like structure”). Inspired by this clever book, students can choose one of the featured dinosaurs to research further, or pick their favorite species as the subject for an illustration or poem.

Part of Candlewick’s kid-popular “Ologies” series, Dinosaurology (2013; Gr 5-8) recounts a fictional scientific excursion made in 1907 to a “lost” island off the coast of South America where dinosaurs still dwell. The journal-style text has been “written” by Raleigh Rimes, young assistant to expedition-leader Col. P. H. Fawcett, and details adventures that include an “almighty battle” between two rival Triceratops, a T. rex vs. tiny pet terrier showdown, and airborne pterosaur species observed face to face from hastily assembled gliders. A wealth of dino facts are integrated into the story, which is splendidly embellished by antique-looking illustrations and interactive elements. Letters are presented on lift-the-flap pages, tiny booklets and fold-out flaps explain scientific concepts, and carefully labeled field sketches and paintings appear throughout (readers can even touch a “specimen” of Allosaurus skin or ground dinosaur bone used locally for medicinal purposes). A back story about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (expedition sponsor) and the mystery surrounding the main character (Fawcett was a true-life explorer who went missing with his son during a 1925 expedition) provide fodder for further research. Encourage students to sort out fact from fiction, and perhaps pen their own well-researched dinosaur adventures.

The Common Core State Standards below are a sampling of those references in the above books and classroom activities:
RI. 1.9 Identify basic similarities and differences between two texts on the same topic (e.g., in illustrations, descriptions, or procedures).
W. 1.2 Write information/explanatory texts in which they name a topic, supply some facts about the topic, and prove some sense of closure.
RI. 2.1 Ask and answer questions about key details in a text.
RI. 2.6 Identify the main topic of a text, including what the author wants to answer, explain, or describe.
W. 2.7 Participate in shared research and writing projects.
RI. 3.5 Use text features and search tools to locate information relevant to a given topic efficiently.
SL. 1.2 Ask and answer questions about key details in a text read aloud….
SL. 3.2 Determine the main ideas and supporting details of a text read aloud or information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
RI. 3.7 Use information gained from illustrations…and the words in a text to demonstrate understanding of the text.
RI. 5.9 Integrate information from several texts on the same topic to wrote or speak about the subject knowledgeably.
W 5.3 Write narrative to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences.
W 5.7 Conduct short research projects that use several sources to build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic.


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Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.