Had you been out looking for a children’s dinosaur book in the United States back in 1971 (and why wouldn’t you have been? What else could you possibly do without the internet?), you may well have happened upon a brand new, fresh-off-the-presses copy of My Super Book of Dinosaurs. Published by Educational Reading Service USA of Mahwah, New Jersey – a name I’d love to hear pronounced with the local accent – this is about as generic as an early ’70s dinosaur book gets, and the author and illustrator sadly go uncredited. But hey, there’s always fun to be had should one care to take a look. (This was another one emailed to me by Charles Leon, by the way – thanks Charles!)
I actually rather like the cover design – the red grabs your attention, and the primordial scene suckers you in. Here we have the usual tail-dragging, upright theropods, volcanic geography, and a familiar-looking Stegosaurus. It seems that the artist was a big fan of the How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs – this isn’t the last time they, ahem, were obviously inspired by Kenyon Shannon’s work for that book.
On to the endpapers, and although Rexy would dearly love to give Triceratops an affectionate pat on the frill, the miserable old ceratopsian clearly doesn’t relish the prospect. I do like the artist’s use of broad brushstrokes and vibrant colours, which give all the creatures a chunky, very solid feel and at least make them interesting to look at. They also fill each scene with suitably lush foliage, although generically tropical, of course. The Triceratops here somewhat resembles Charles Knight’s in his ‘T. rex v Triceratops‘ painting, as well as another of Shannon’s illustrations (which also resembled Knight’s). However, the artist at least embellishes it with strange, rectangular nodules and thick skin folds on the shoulders. It looks suitably toughened, and might just about be strange enough to count as prescient for 1971.
The book is the usual ramble through a series of prehistoric animal profiles, although they don’t appear to be in any particular order. Stegosaurus pops up early on, looking unsually lean ‘n’ mean for an illustration of this period. Contemporary illustrations tended to portray the animal as a slothful, tail-dragging dullard, but here it stands purposefully, seemingly braced, with its tail lifted clear of the ground. The dramatically shaded head helps, of course – and those spikes. Yikes, the spikes. Of course, the text still notes that “it is believed that the Stegosaurus had two brains,” which was a popular silly trope at the time.
If Stegosaurus looks unusually badass here, then Ankylosaurus just looks…weird. Plain weird. Of course, there is plenty of precedent for this. Many contemporary illustrations tended to depict the animal as a kind of angry pineapple, with no legs (just feet), no neck and very little tail. More importantly, this particular illustration is quite clearly based on another that appeared in the How and Why Wonder Book, although it’s less of a direct copy this time. In fact, this one is actually an improvement if anything, although it remains deeply strange. The “Palaeoscincus” style mish-mash of characteristics is one thing, but never mind that – I just love the enormous spheroid cudgel stuck on the end of the tail.
This Triceratops looks very familiar too – it’s not from the How and Why Wonder Book, but we’ve definitely seen it before somewhere, and it’s driving me nuts. When compared with the earlier example, this one is notably more rotund and disproportionate, with a hugely long, fat, dragging tail and a body like a football. At least we get a very nifty and striking colour palette on this spread. Amusingly, the skeletal drawing (based on the famous mount in the AMNH) makes it clear that the huge hump has been invented by the artist (or the original artist, at least). Maybe it’s a camel-like, fatty hump.
It’s perhaps not too surprising that my favourite spread in this book involves Tyrannosaurus, but it’s just so wonderfully odd that I can’t help but love it. How did the individual on the right end up fully inverted in this fight, with its legs in the air, like it was walking on the ceiling? The cross-hatched scales are a little crude, but at least there’s a wonderful, swirling chaos about the scene, with the odd detail (like dead tree branches) just being discernible. It’s also perhaps notable that Rexy is depicted as green with an orange head; it’s a colour scheme that’s popped up a number of times over the decades (with a few minor variations), and it’d be interesting to trace its history.
Oh, and for all that the earlier Triceratops skeleton really wasn’t all that bad, this illustration of a T. rex skull looks alarmingly derpy.
Although My Super Book of Dinosaurs doesn’t even tack the usual ‘andotherprehistoricanimals’ on to its title, we’re treated to a few of them anyway. This inevitably leads to Dimetrodon. The artist should be commended for placing the animal in a lush, forested setting – poor Dimetrodon was so often relegated to a boringly empty desert expanse, probably because, like, it’s just a big lizard or something innit? Unfortunately, there are a few fudges; the head isn’t great and that right forelimb is up to some interesting things, like detaching from the body and crawling off on its own. As for the sail, there are about 300 Dimetrodon species, so one of them probably had a sail like this. I don’t know, go and consult Wikipedia.
Happily, the less predictable Tanystropheus is included to, resembling a lizard that’s had some amusing stuff done to it in Photoshop. In fact, I’m quite sure that this colour scheme has been lifted directly from a modern lizard – if any of you herpetology types out there can identify it, I might well send you a wee prize. The artist can be commended for not having the neck do a lot of crazy bendy things; Tanystropheus‘ neck famously consisted of surprisingly few vertebrae.
And finally – it’s good old Iguanodon. This illustration is quite clearly based on the one in the How and Why Wonder Book, although the artist here at least expands on the background, creating a lovely panoramic spread featuring varying foliage and topography, incidental sauropods, and pterosaurs that definitely aren’t Pteranodon, honest. That, and the lovely warm colour palette, are almost enough to make me forget that I’m sitting in a drafty flat in the mind-numbingly grey English winter – I can picture myself by that lovely subtropical lakeside, soaking up the rays, taking in the sights and hoping that that giant reptile will leave me well alone. Bliss.
That illustration of a hand doesn’t half look funny though – the thumb spike’s been reduced to a long fingernail! Look out, Iguanodon might give you a nasty scratch. At least he’d be good at finding the end of the Sellotape.