I love pop-up books, and reviewed a load of them over on LITC Mk 1 – ranging from little-known National Geographic efforts illustrated by John Sibbick and Ely Kish, to slightly ropy work from illustrators who were probably just trying to pay the bills. My latest eBay acquisition – Great Dinosaurs – is probably a more comfortable fit in the latter camp, but at least illustrator Dennis Anderson gets to show off some impressive technical skill along the way.
Yes, there’s a very lizardy Dimetrodon on the cover. Is there a Dimetrodon inside, with further explanation? No. I’m sure it’s just there to induce nerd rage. Look, it’s sticking its tongue out at you and everything.
Great Dinosaurs was written by Jennifer Zobelein and published under the Hallmark Children’s Editions banner. It apparently dates from ‘the 1970s’, although further information is not forthcoming. In fact, the book lacks almost any publication details whatsoever. Certainly, the view of dinosaurs presented here is typical of a book from the early ’70s, with very static swamp-dwellers and tail-draggers occupying every page. The animals are also given conspicuously reptilian hides, which are actually rather well done.
Straight away in the inside cover, the book presents us with a lizardlike vision of Tyrannosaurus, all gleaming scales and twisted smile, inspecting a very imposing-looking locomotive. This is a fantastically old-school vision of Rexy as an upright, unthinking, cold-blooded monstrosity, and I love it. (It does help that I’m a sucker for illustrations comparing dinosaurs with modern objects, especially machines.) I’m sure many kids were thrilled by this image back in the ’70s. It’s interesting to note that Rexy appears to have a more-or-less uniform skin texture, except on his toes, which sport what I guess are large, flattened scales. You know, like a bird. Surely not?
In addition, this book also clearly belonged to Ian Winters of Manchester at some point. Hi Ian!
Of course, we’re really here for some sexy paper mechanics, and the title page duly delivers. (Incidentally, we have Bruce Baker to thank for paper engineering and layouts.) Yes, this peek-a-boo-a-terrible-lizard does look very ridiculous, what with its stretchy vertical neck and lack of any shoulders to speak of. But if we focus on the illustration below the pop-up, we can see that Anderson’s again made excellent work of it – just check out the lumpy scales on the legs of this tyrannosaur, and tell me you don’t instantly imagine what they must feel like. It would’ve looked much better if the scales were reduced in size, of course, but still – this is well-executed work. You know, except for the hilarious periscope neck. More please.
Typically for a pop-up book, Great Dinosaurs is rather short and lacks any kind of structure, instead simply presenting a string of different dinosaur genera in turn (plus one otherprehistoricanimal, which we’ll get to). As such, it skips straight from Tyrannosaurus (and the presumed tyrannosaur on the title page) to Stegosaurus. It always seems like a missed opportunity when these old books fail to place dinosaurs in chronological order, rather than cultivating a Fantasia-like vision of everyone’s favourite dinosaurs living at the same time, but whatever. The stegosaurs look pretty decent for the time, if very Burianesque, and the pop-up effectively emphasises the animals’ impressive plates. I’m also fond of the inclusion of a nest, since it seems that we seldom see stegosaurs in art exhibiting nesting behaviours. Palaeoartists do have a few chuckles depicting them attempting to mate now and then, sometimes with other species, but that’s not the sort of thing one discusses in polite company. What about those nesting stegosaurs, artists? Get to it.
As it happens, Stegosaurus is followed by a contemporary animal – namely the classically waterlogged and bloated hump-backed beast of yore, Brontosaurus. This might just be my favourite illustration in the book, purely for those fantastic skin textures. Yes, Brontosaurus probably didn’t have crocodilian-like scutes on its back, but who cares when they look this convincing? The environment is gorgeous, too, with beautifully painted ferns and mountains out in the distance. Pulling on the tab here will move one brontosaur’s jaws, while the individual in the background (giving the old side-eye) dips its neck down. Outdated as these submerged sauropods might be, this is still a beautiful and evocative illustration. It’s also another reminder that sauropod nostrils started out towards the end of the snout, before anatomical fidelity demanded that they ascend up the forehead. Oh, the irony.
The only animal to be fully realised as a three-dimensional pop-up is Triceratops, and, well, it looks a little awkward. Of course, it’s extremely difficult to actually pull off this sort of thing, so Baker is at least to be commended for making a good fist of it. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop this beast looking extremely odd upon being revealed. Naturally, it helps if one views it from the side (as above). Anderson appears to give Triceratops a keratinous ‘sheet’ over its frill, a once-popular trope that fell out of favour, but is now finding support again. Although some of the detailing is lost in the folds of the pop-up, it’s possible to discern that the horns, although smooth, do have a few pock-marks and imperfections. Such small details are a good sign that the artist did care for the subject matter, and for depicting dinosaurs as real animals, rather than fantastic monsters.
Although they aren’t seen together here, it’s inevitable that where Triceratops appears, Tyrannosaurus can’t be far behind (even if he’s already turned up once). Here, pulling the tab makes both Rexy and his ornithomimosaur friends lean over to the right. It seems like a missed opportunity – given the description of Ornithomimus stealing eggs from Rexy, couldn’t we have had the tottering tyrant leering through the undergrowth with his famous jaws wide open? As it is, this rather static scene, while in keeping with the nature of most pre-Dino Renaissance palaeoart, doesn’t really serve either of its subjects very well. At least the animals look quite handsome. I’m especially fond of Rexy’s knobbly legs, even if he also sports a weirdly enormous eye. Hey, at least his ear hasn’t been stuck where his jaw muscles should go.
While Tyrannosaurus might be under-utilised, the animal most obviously suited to a pop-up book – Brachiosaurus – is thankfully given a decent treatment. Here, turning the page results in a sauropod’s considerable neck springing up into the reader’s face – very effective. It’s a bit of a shame that we can’t see anything of this beast below the shoulders, but that’s because it “couldn’t move around on land at all”, you see. Clearly, it was Too Big To Walk. While we might not get to see much of Brachiosaurus‘ anatomy, we are at least treated to the delightful face of the individual on the right.
So much sass. Hang on – what was that I was saying about sauropod nostrils, earlier on? We should probably pretend that didn’t happen.
For its penultimate spread, Great Dinosaurs jumps back to the Late Cretaceous, where we meet the sole non-dinosaur to feature in the book (the cover excepted). Inevitably, it’s Pteranodon, but at least we get an interesting perspective on this floppy-legged evolutionary hiccup – namely, from directly above. Curiously, Pteranodon is a cut-out stuck to the end of a wire, which protrudes out of the page. Turn the wheel to the left, and around and around it goes, orbiting the central rock like a satellite. Neat.
Meanwhile, the right hand page is occupied by Ankylosaurus in classic ‘angry pineapple’ form, with very little in the way of neck, limbs or tail. Pulling the tab waggles the tail and jaw up and down simultaneously. Apparently, this shuffling fellow was “as long as two parked cars”, although it’s not mentioned what types of cars these would be, nor whether they’d be positioned a respectful distance apart or parked Paris-style. I guess we should simply draw the conclusion that it was big, grumpy, and permanently hungry.
And finally…they’re all dead now. But you can go and check out their lovely bones in a museum, should it tickle your fancy. This is one of the book’s best pop-ups – as the page is opened, the ornithopod skeleton unfolds dramatically, finally towering over the kids in the foreground. The framed slab on the left is also a nice touch, helping set the scene that little bit more effectively. Thumbs up all around.