There are few better ways of encouraging children to read than giving them a book about dinosaurs, and so our favourite sauropsid clade feels like a perfect fit for the Read About It series of books, educational titles with (seemingly) the specific aim of building young children’s reading skills. I was completely unfamiliar with this 1970s series before happening upon this book on eBay – unlike the similar Ladybird non-fiction books, these apparently didn’t persist into my mostly 1990s childhood. Dinosaurs itself dates from 1975, and is very, very of its time – as the cover makes wonderfully clear.
Illustrator Maurice Hutchings has, to modern eyes at least, a rather unusual style – his reconstructions are very stylised, with something of a naive quality. Of course, this approach was far more common in those pre-Sibbick*, pre-CGI days, when there was less pressure on jobbing artists to adopt a uniform hyper-realistic style. Animals are shown against mostly plain white backgrounds, with what could almost be described as a frieze of a landscape running through the middle of the page. It provides a clever sense of continuity when flicking through the book and looking only at the illustrations on the right-hand page. The cover stars a very Zallingerian Brontosaurus, but unlike Zallinger’s static Bronto, Hutchings’ sauropod appears to be shooting its neck up out of the water, as indicated by almost cartoonish-looking water streaming from its mouth and spray erupting at the base of the neck. I do love the utterly nonplussed expression on its face. That’s what I look like every time Boris Johnson speaks.
Inside, we’re treated to some fantastically lumpy-looking sauropods with deep concentric grooves on their necks and tails – a real Michelin Man look. They remind me a great deal of the bargain bin dinosaur toys that formed the bulk of my collection as a kid (alongside the fancy-schmancy Carnegie and JP stuff). That skin texture is utterly bizarre, but you’ve got to admire the shading. I’m also fond of the huge fronds of…ferns?…being proudly held up by the animal in the foreground. The one in the background is just razzing at the viewer, obviously.
The earliest dinosaurs shown are Plateosaurus, and – Von Huene be praised! – they’re shown walking bipedally. Again, this clearly isn’t an attempt at a realistic depiction, but even so, there’s some slightly odd stuff going on – the animals’ legs and feet don’t seem to quite match up with the rest of them, and that’s especially true of the creature in the back, which seems to have a freakishly large right foot. Still, you’ve got to admire their nifty stripy skin and the unusual idea of adding notably larger scales to the upper arms and shoulders. For protection, perhaps? Or just to add visual interest? Probably the latter, but never mind. I like it.
Hutchings takes a similar approach to illustrating both Brontosaurus and Brachiosaurus, depicting a close-up head ‘n’ neck with a complete animal in the background. The background Brachiosaurus is obviously based on that Burian piece, so let’s instead have a closer look at the one in the foreground. Its nostril openings are at the end of its snout, in common with many old-school reconstructions – this was seemingly based purely on sticking them where they looked right (note the sunken area over the bony nostril here) but it always amuses me that the evidence brought us back around to that idea…sort of. Hutchings also depicts the animal with huge scales, with strikingly thick black outlines. He then uses graduating shades to indicate the neck’s girth. It almost gives the impression of a transparent outer mesh containing the neck, which is certainly…different.
If Hutchings’ Stegosaurus rings a few bells, that’s only because it’s remarkably reminiscent of Kenyon Shannon’s illustration in The How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs. Hutchings does pile on the extra fine detail, giving the animal more of those wonderfully boldly outlined scales; unusually, these even extend onto the plates, implying that they are covered with skin (something Shannon didn’t do). The book’s limited colour palette and graphic art backgrounds really come into their own here, with a beautiful blending of oranges and greens and a layered backdrop complete with lurking theropod. That the two stegosaurs look quite remarkably different from one another (and have such weirdly short necks) is all part of the charm.
Stegosaurus is followed by a fellow thyreophoran, Ankylosaurus, although this illustration is clearly based on a number of “Palaeoscincus” reconstructions of yore (basically conflating Ankylosaurus and Edmontonia). The close-up of the head is a nice idea, and the animal’s ivory-coloured spines look suitably fearsome. Just don’t ask what’s going on with those hind limbs. Knees do what now?
Triceratops may be a sludgy green old lump, but there’s still something rather adorable about its appearance here. I think it’s those legs – its diminutive, stumpy forelimbs in particular make it resemble a stabby-faced sausage dog. Its eyebrow horns are also a bit off, although this is isn’t the most egregious example of that. Lovely detailing on the scales, again, with some interesting rows of larger scales (resembling armour) on its back, and at least it doesn’t have a long, dragging tail that resembles a tumble dryer ventilation hose…
…Unlike Rexy! Yes, Rexy’s tail resembles a conveniently flexible concertinaed tube, and he’s definitely suffering from a case of chronic zipper-mouth, but the rest of him isn’t too weird for 1975. In fact, there’s something oddly familiar about this illustration, although I haven’t been able to find the (possible) original – as always, leave a comment if you know. These two do also look like they’re posing for a fashion photoshoot, in spite of not wearing anything besides a terrifyingly all-consuming black void in place of a mouth and a demonic, solidly red stare. Sadly, the accompanying text isn’t especially hyperbolic, merely listing Rexy’s all-important key measurements. Remarkably, Rexy is the only theropod to feature in the book (background silhouettes aside), which would be nigh-on unthinkable today. Wot, no Antrodemus? Outrage!
And that’s your lot for now. However, I retrieved the first 10 issues of a certain 1990s magazine from my parents’ house just before our latest lockdown, and very much intend of poring over them in another Facebook livestream in the near future. Please do join in if you can!
*Before his work became so well known, at least (so, pre-Normanpedia)