Our book today has a front cover positively festooned with possible titles, and no referee standing close at hand to declare one the winner. There’s a banner at the top that says “Earth Before Us.” Then right in the center in big green letters there’s Dinosaur Empire! And down at the bottom there’s a label-looking circle saying “Journey through the Mesozoic Era.” All things being equal, I’m thinking most readers will plop for that very dramatic Dinosaur Empire! – that’s what I’ll do, just so it doesn’t sound like I’m talking about an entire mini-library of books (I repeat once again: my book-titling services are available to the publishing industry at any time of the day or night, free of charge).
Dinosaur Empire is a treat from the folks at Amulet Books. It’s written and drawn by the great Boston cartoonist Abby Howard, and Amulet’s classification of it as suitable for ages 8 to 12 years old is grimly hilarious – when I read the book and then circled back and read that age grouping, I seriously wanted to ask the people at Amulet when – or if – they’ve ever talked science with an American. Dinosaur Empire is written with tremendous energy and approachability, but my own estimate is that roughly 95% of its contents would come as a complete surprise to the first 50 fully-grown adults anybody from Amulet might encounter on the street. This is a dinosaur book you can confidently hand to anybody.
The story stars a little girl named Ronnie, who’s just received a big fat zero on a school quiz about dinosaurs. She has a chance to re-take the quiz, and she faces the prospect of a great deal of cramming. Then her eccentric neighbor Miss Lernin invites Ronnie to take a trip into her recycling bin – which turns out to be a portal to the past. Protected by “science magic,” the two take a grand tour of prehistoric life, starting 200 million years ago in the Late Triassic!
Patiently and without the smallest trace of condescension, Miss Lernin takes little Ronnie through hundreds of millions of years of life on Earth, explaining along the way all the key concepts of paleontology, ideas like convergent evolution and ecological niches, to a girl who really wants what any sensible person would want: to see a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Howard is an excellent guide to all the information Miss Lernin is imparting – there’s a tremendous amount of information packed into very little space in this book. Ronnie’s oddball teacher has a ready answer to every question:
“What’s an archosaur?”
“It’s the group name for basically all the creatures we just met, including dinosaurs! They all evolved from a common ancestor and they have traits in common, though they are pretty distinct from one another. There were a lot of niches left empty at the beginning of the Triassic, and when there’s an empty niche, animals evolve to fill it.”
And wonderfully, in the midst of all this learning, Howard doesn’t forget to stir in some humor. Miss Lernin is the kind of over-earnest nerd most nerds can only ever dream of becoming some day, and the book embraces the silly side of that as well as the serious side. When the incredible journey is over and Ronnie – won over to learning almost despite herself – wonders if they’ll ever have another such adventure, Miss Lernin assures her: “Never fear, when next you need to unravel the mysteries of the past, I’ll be here” … before remembering to add: “Except on Saturday afternoons, that’s when I have book club.”
Of course, younger readers of Dinosaur Empire will be rooting the whole time for Ronnie to finally meet her T. rex. And when she does, the results will be all but unthinkable to any true-blue dinosaur fan, regardless of how scientifically accurate those results may be. There’s one word that perfectly describes the monstrous killer dinosaur those young readers have been rooting for. And – shudder – that word rymes with ‘root.’
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