I can remember, as a boy of 10 or 12 in Massachusetts in the early ’50s, prowling the stacks at the Cambridge Public Library—a ponderous but beautiful Romanesque stone building set in a park between Cambridge High and Latin School and Rindge Tech—looking for books on paleontology. I didn’t know the word “paleontology” then, and even if I did, I wouldn’t have cared what it meant. What I wanted to know about was dinosaurs. All I could find were text-heavy tomes, not especially designed for people my age, sparsely peppered with meager little line drawings, plus, if I was lucky, a full-page black-and-white plate or two. But that was enough to fire my imagination. The creatures in those drawings sprang from the page into my mind, where they’re lumbering around still—triple-horned Triceratops, Stegosaurus with its array of bony fins, armor-plated Ankylosaurus, the massive Brontosaurus, as it was then called—so big it needed two brains to get around, one in its head, and a ganglion farther back—and, of course the fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex.
Imagine, then, the impact that Cherie Winner’s The Little Book of Dinosaurs must have on kids today. Written for beginning readers—or for parents who enjoy reading to their children—its 24 pages distinguish dinosaurs from other reptiles, place them on a timeline stretching back 65 to 250 million years, describe nine species—including some of my favorites from the list above—and explain their demise. Cherie concludes with a brief glossary, in which she defines such terms as “carnivore,” ‘fossil,” “prey,” and—aha!—“paleontologist.”
But it’s the illustrations in this little book that pack the biggest wallop. Drawn in what I can only describe as a hyper-realistic style, they render the dinosaurs in vivid color and meticulous detail. Every scale on the hides of these creatures, for example, is painstakingly demarcated by highlights and shadows. While this tends to give most of the animals an exaggerated pebbly skin texture, the artist, who is never identified, endows each with its own unique coloring—an overall green for Stegosaurus, a kind of diamond-back pattern in blue, red, and black for Corythosaurus, and an all-over lattice pattern in shades of russet for Baryonyx.
Although these colorations might be speculative at bottom, they do account for much of the realism of these illustrations—as do the stories they tell. Triceratops, for example, is pictured in a threatening posture: head down, nostrils huffing, foot stamping. Baryonyx is caught in the act of snaring a salmon. A pair of ostrich-like Struthionimi are depicted in mid-stride, the lead animal extending its neck forward and down as it prepares to scoop up a hapless ratlike creature in its path. (The latter image, incidentally, works very well to illustrate the way some dinosaurs evolved into birds.) And in one of the most appealing of these images, a duck-billed Corythosaurus—a mother, presumably—is shown in a reclining posture, her forelimbs crossed, and a juvenile peering over her back.
The book saves the best—or the worst—for last—old T-rex himself, rising out of the bottom edge of the page like a messenger of doom, forearms spread wide, grooved claws poised to strike, massive head looming, unbelievable jaws agape, lips curled back to the gums, and two rows of glistening, highly polished, dagger-pointed pearly whites ready to leap off the page and—brrr. What a far, far cry from those static renderings I grew up on!
Readers of Washington State Magazine will recognize Cherie Winner as the author of numerous feature stories and an even greater number of shorter articles. Cherie has been the science writer for WSM since 2005—but she’s been publishing science-oriented books for children since 1993. Having earned her doctorate 11 years before with a dissertation on regeneration in salamanders, it was easy to settle on a subject to start her freelance writing career with. So the title of her first book, of course, was Salamanders, and it was aimed at children in grades 3 to 5. Although she had spent the preceding years in the rarefied atmosphere of higher education, she had no trouble adapting her writing style to the needs of these children without betraying a hint of condescension, as this passage from Salamanders demonstrates:
“Protecting migrating salamanders is just one example of how people are beginning to help salamanders. As we learn more about salamanders, we can find other ways to help them survive. Much of what we learn can benefit us as well. With the salamander’s help, we can learn to tell if streams have been made unsafe by pollution. And some day, perhaps, we will understand the biggest mystery of all—their ability to regenerate. There is still much that these gentle creatures can teach us.”
Cherie followed Salamanders with books on other animals, including penguins, lions, bison, and woodpeckers, along with titles such as Life in the Tundra (2003), Life on the Edge (2006) (a book about extremophiles), Circulating Life: Blood Transfusion from Ancient Superstition to Modern Medicine (2007), and many others. Circulating Life was named an Outstanding Science Trade Book for Students K-12 by the National Science Teachers Association, and Coyotes (1995), The Sunflower Family (1996), and Erosion (1999) have been similarly recognized. Cryobiology (2006) won an International Reading Association / Children’s Book Council Children’s Choice award. In all Cherie has published 23 books for children, mostly in the life sciences. Her one nonscientific book is Kids Gone Campin’: The Young Camper’s Guide to Having More Fun Outdoors (2006).
Cherie has written a particularly engaging set of books for the “Kids’ FAQs” series published by NorthWord Press, now an imprint of Cooper Square Publishing. Her contributions to the series consist of four titles—Everything Reptile (2004), Everything Bug (2004), Animal Minis (2006), and Everything Bird (2007). Each book is organized around a number of questions children might ask. In the bird book, written for grades 2 to 4, these range from the predictable—“How do birds fly? Do birds make good pets?”—to the unexpected—“Why do flamingoes have backward knees? Why is bird poop so runny?” Each book concludes with a special feature of some sort—“Weird bird names” or “Tall tales about bugs”—and a list of books and Web sites for further exploration.
So why do flamingoes have backward knees? Well, says Cherie, they don’t. “When we look at a bird, what we think are its knees are actually its ankles,” she writes. “Birds stand on their toes. The rest of the foot is off the ground. The first joint we see above the toes is the ankle. The little knob that points backward there—the one that looks like it’s where the knee should be—is like your heel. The knee is up near the body, so we don’t often see it. It points forward just like our knees do.”
See? Adults can learn from these books too.