Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaurs At Your Fingertips

Vintage Dinosaur Art

Happy New Year! Last month, I promised you I’d take an in-depth look at the dinosaur designs from The Land Before Time, and I’m still going to, but life, uh, got in the way (not least because there was a podcast to edit). Today, to cleanse the palate, I’m going to give you something small and quick and dirty and a little bit ridiculous.

This is a book I found in my attic. It’s dusty, slightly battered from years of being manhandled by three giant rough-and-tumble blonde Dutch viking boys, and probably a little bit dribbled on, but it still looks okay under the scanner. Although it hails, once again, from 1993 (perhaps the single most prolific year for Vintage Dinosaur Art) this is one from my little brother’s childhood rather than my own. I believe this is one in a “At Your Fingertips” series of about a dozen books, all written by Judy Nayer and illustrated by Grace Goldberg, that introduce various scientific subjects to children (this is the only one I have). As you can see, it’s a big cardboard book for young kids where every page is die-cut, so the dinosaurs from the pages yet to come already pop out and stare at you. It’s most charmingly done.

This is what we’re in for. For a book meant to introduce kids to science, the level of scientific accuracy is a few lamentable notches below absoultely incredible, even for the time. Goldberg’s dinosaurs look big, bright and bold, striking, fantastical, dynamic, imaginative, tacky… but not always terribly convincing as real animals. This is one of the better examples. The ridge of spines along the cherry red Apatosaurus‘ back is more reminiscent of an iguana than of a dinosaur, but does add a layer of recognizability to a fantastical creature. The choice to highlight the contrast between a giant sauropod and a small theropod is amusing. The loud, primary colours used throughout the book are here for the kids.

If there is one thing Grace Goldberg can emphatically not be accused of, it’s epigonism. Say what you will about these dinosaurs – and I most certainly will – but they look like nothing else. I’m going to be sounding rather unkind here in just a minute so let’s take this moment to say that I always respect an artist who comes up with their own poses and designs over just another Sibbick copycat. That said…

That Spinosaurus… sure is something. If you thought they look weird now, you’ve got another thing coming. This one’s got a sinuous back, an extra thumb claw and a flimsy marlin’s sail. The perspective is daft and it’s got just the oddest head. I know artists at this time still gave Spinosaurus the feared “generic carnosaur” head, but this isn’t that. With those ridges over the eyes and along the neck and the wavy jaw, it’s more of a dragon head. It all adds up to a creature that looks like it belongs on the pages of the Monster Manual from Dungeons & Dragons. Oddly, I’ve seen only one Spinosaurus reconstruction where the teeth extend under the eyeholes like this: Giovanni Caselli’s. At the same time, the texture on Spinosaurus is very lifelike and tangible.

Remember when there was a showdown for the ugliest 90s dromaeosaur reconstruction, way back in the early days of this blog? This blue Deinonychus would have been a serious contender. Smooth and shiny, with a crooked back and a goose neck, gangly toes and what look for all the world like cat paw pads under its hands? Weird. It’s supposed to be a dangerous, fast runner, but it looks clumsy on those clown feet. It also has those creepy humanoid pecs that you sometimes see in theropod reconstructions of this time.

Compared to all that, the T. rex comes out looking rather well. It looks powerful, big and heavy and stiff. Its head looks recognizably rexish and it stalks the page in a most menacing manner befitting of a storybook monster. Of course, you need that forest fire in the background. What are you gonna place your Rexy in, a poppy field?

(Note: If you speak Dutch, you might notice that the pronounciation guide is WAY off. It seems to me that the translator took the English pronounciations at face value and tried to phonetically transliterate those.)

So much weirdness! Styracosaurus looks like it has a bad hair day, with its spikes poking any which way. Triceratops has a bad case of Too Much Skin, her baby doubly so. Stegosaurus looks barely recognizable, even though there isn’t anything immediately off about it. Goldberg often shows her animals in unusual and dynamic poses, which isn’t a bad thing by any means, but it does mean that the outline of the animal isn’t always clear.

Oh, and yes: you bet the text brings up the freakin’ walnut. Enough with the freakin’ walnut already.

It’s interesting that the role of the Loving Parent Hadrosaur falls not to Maiasaura, but to Lambeosaurus. Props to Goldberg for drawing a Lambeosaurus magnicristatus rather than the more commonly seen L. lambei. Like many other dinosaurs here (including its neighbour Euoplocephalus) it looks a little bit too shiny and rubbery and flexible to really feel real, but if there’s any dinosaur that deserves a loud colour scheme, surely it’s Lambeosaurus.

Euoplocephalus seems to be the only dinosaur that really takes some obvious clues from Sibbick. Interesting how, in so many 90s books, Euoplocephalus became the go-to ankylosaur rather than the bigger but scantly-known Ankylosaurus itself – I think the Normanpedia might be partially to blame! Goldberg still adds her own eccentric touches, not least a peculiarly bovine-looking snout. Strangely, this is not the first time I’ve seen a very flexible Euoplocephalus with a cow-like head.

Parasaurolophus is purple.

You know, it’s been a while since we’ve found a pterosaur that looks like nature’s cruelest mistake. This Pteranodon might not be the worst I’ve ever seen, but it does look ever so slightly demonic! It’s got its ribs poking out, its arms are horribly gangly and bony, and it especially has those creeptastic translucent ultra-thin wings! Holy moly. Not sure if I’ve seen transparent pterosaur wings before! I believe the artist intends for it to look fuzzy, which takes some of the egde off, but it’s still a fiendish looking flyer.

The Mosasaurus, too, looks monstrous. Chimeric, even. It’s head is more mammalian than lizardly (unlike a dinosaur, a mosasaur actually is a lizard, so lizards are perfectly acceptable as reference) but the ridges on its back and tail are fish-like. And what’s up with that wrinkeled neck? Ichthyosaurus is also there.

And that’s Dinosaurs At Your Fingertips. What can you say about it? It’s fun. It’s colourful. It’s pure kitsch. It’s about as good as you can expect of a book for little children, but at the same time I wish we’d put children’s media to higher standards. I don’t mean to be down on Grace Goldberg, who clearly is a fine illustrator and has a lot of fun, but I feel that with a little more research the result would have been so much nicer. As it stands, I’ll think twice before donating this one to my best friend’s dinosaur-obsessed five year old. It’s still lovable in all its 90s weirdness.

7 thoughts on “Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaurs At Your Fingertips

  1. I did wonder about the pronunciation guides.

    (As far as I recall, Swedish language dino books of my childhood never had any, accurate or not. If they’d had, maybe I wouldn’t have laboured for years under the misapprehension that everyone’s favorite flying reptiles are called “peterosaurs”.)

    Don’t diss visible ribs, I’m sure heroine chic is making a comeback soon enough.

  2. Gawd, I dunno if it’s the color scheme or the shiny blobbiness, but something about that Deinonychus makes me think it’s slowly morphing from an RPG slime.

  3. Hmmmmm. I think I have an English translation of this one under a different name. My latest inventory (updated last year just before the lock-down) doesn’t list it under the author (Nayer), but the cover looks familiar and I know that there were several books in other boxes that we didn’t get to at the time. I’ll put it on my list of ones to search for when we do another inventory later this year.

    1. Well, I found my copy (while looking for something completely unrelated, of course). No big surprises- the English title is the same (Dinosaurs At Your Fingertips) with a 1993 copyright, and the back cover has a list of 8 other titles in the series,

  4. Shame on me, I only just got around to checking this out properly. Wow, what a find (or not, as it was in your house all along!). That Deinonychus is absolutely incredible, with its freakish arms and tiny head. And a Pteranodon with TRANSPARENT wings! Good grief.

  5. “If you thought they look weird now, you’ve got another thing coming.”

    The saying is actually “… you’ve got another THOUGHT coming.” My parents’ generation would say “… you’ve got another THINK coming.” and consider that hilarious. But “… you’ve got another THING coming.” just doesn’t make sense and speaks of poor understanding of English.

    I’m really disappointed in you, Niels. 🙂

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