Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaurium

Vintage Dinosaur Art

I check the copyright page, and I check it again. 1993? Really? Surely that can’t be true. Surely this book is at least fifteen years newer than that. But no. The proof is right there, undeniable, clear as day. What sorcery is this? Who stole a time machine? How is this book so good?

That year again, that fateful year. 1993. The Year of the Dinosaur, according to ancient astrology that I made up. The deluge of dino books from the early nineties in general and 1993 in particular has given us at LITC so much material over the years. It’s all been variously decent, hilarious, dumb, occasionally great but mostly just very, very mediocre. There’s only so many Sibbick ripoffs you can look at before it begins to wear on you. It’s so easy to forget that there were genuinely great artists out there who genuinely cared about dinosaurs, making them look accurate, and making them look beautiful.

Let’s talk about Donna Braginetz.

The organizing principle of Dinosaurium, written by Barbara Brenner and illustrated by the aforementioned Donna Braginetz, is somewhat difficult to explain. It blurs the lines of fiction and nonfiction in a very peculiar way. There’s kids walking into a dinosaur museum, but there’s all kinds of live dinosaurs there. Some of the museum takes you outside into the actual Mesozoic wilderness. The dinosaurs never attack the people or each other, except when they do. Also the book itself is the museum? Who cares when the artwork is this gorgeous? That Baryonyx head alone on the index page shows us we’re in good hands.

Honestly, leafing through the pages, it all makes sense, and it’s a wonderfully original concept. A dinosaur museum that contains the actual dinosaur world itself is just such a kid’s dream, isn’t it? But what really sells it is Braginetz’ incredible dinosaur reconstructions. Her dinosaurs are so great, thoroughly modern, up to date, beautiful, vibrant and full of character. Whoever her direct inspirations were, Sibbick, bless him, wasn’t one. No wrinkled skin, drooping tails or Normanpedia alumni here. This is the same scene as above, seen from the other side of the room.

This fold also appears on the large poster that comes with the book (gracefully, it was included with the second hand copy I scored). On every page, there is just so much going on that I find it hard to even know where to start commenting. Here’s our cast of characters. And they are indeed recurring characters; almost none of the dinosaurs appear just once. All images are ensemble pieces, with different animals taking the spotlight in different scenes. Here, everyone seems to be more or less on equal footing.

Then, Brenner and Braginetz introduce the three time periods for dinosaurs. Of course, it is the monstrous Rutiodon that immediately draws the attention here, and the girl who, apparently fearlessly, inspects its teeth. How the humans and animals interact in the Dinosaurium is very child-friendly. Although they are not anthropomorphized in any way, the animals are never dangerous, the people never scared. They feed the animals, pet them and look at them up close with no danger. Sometimes, the animals co-exist peacefully, but the carnivores do sometimes attack the herbivores. Anyway, I love a good phytosaur, and this one looks immaculate. Where the Plateosaurus on the previous spread was bipedal, this one goes on all fours. The only thing that sticks out a bit is the very modern looking turtle, which looks less stylized than the other animals. Onwards and upwards! This way to the Jurassic!

How you feel about this book might be how you feel about those humans casually strolling around everywhere and getting in the way. It’s true that I could probably do without them, but when the dinosaurs look this great, who’s complaining? This might be the single best-looking 90s Allosaurus out there, and I could easily say the same for all the other dinosaurs here. The diplodocids have their necks up in a way consistent with modern thinking, the Stegosaurus has a nice long neck. Only the fuzzless Compsognathus convinces me that Donna Braginetz doesn’t secretly own a time machine. Points for a rare appearance of a strikingly patterned Yandusaurus, an ornithischian from Middle Jurassic China.

Triceratops, that’s another iconic dinosaur that you rarely see done right. One thing I look for in my Triceratops reconstructions is whether the brow horns are placed directly over the eyes. Manna from heaven. This one is enjoying a spot of petting. Pure wish fulfilment fantasy. Dinosaurium is the opposite of Jurassic Park in that way. Here, the dinosaurs run free, but you can safely walk up to them and pet them with no danger. Try that with a real herbivore that size and tell me how it went. I love the diversity of ornithischians in the background, especially the funky-coloured Ouranosaurus and the majestic Shantungosaurus, the largest nonsauropod dinosaur. Interesting how Tarbosaurus rather than T. rex is the featured theropod here.

Here’s another big assemblage of saurischians and ornithischians, and it’s becoming noticeable that Donna Braginetz is probably most comfortable illustrating dinosaurs in profile. I suspect she was making use of skeletal references, maybe those made by Greg Paul. It works well with the particular accurate-to-life but still stylized colourful style she uses. I love the bright colours on the lambeosaurines and the layer of blue on the Euoplocephalus, and another Jurassic Chinese oddball, Omeisaurus, puts in an appearance. But we all know what you’re really interested in. Let’s see that T. rex again.

From Sibbick to Sovák and from Burian to Barlowe, we often see how otherwise excellent palaeoartists can sometimes muck up their T. rex. Not so for Donna Braginetz. Give or take a few fine details, this Rexy would not look out of place among so many of today’s high quality Tyrannosaurus reconstructions. She even paid attention, real attention, to all those keratin bosses and rough spots the animal has going on on top of its snout. For all its infamy as a movie monster, Tyrannosaurus can be quite a beautiful, elegant animal in the hands of a skilled artist. The colours are muted on this one (as one would expect from a predator) but the splash of purple on the face is inspired.

Hang on, I have to check the copyright page again. Yep. Still 1993. How?

This is the only time when there’s signs of danger in the paradise that is the Dinosaurium, as the Tyrannosaurus is graphically eating a Triceratops (alas, Trike’s winning streak against Sexy Rexy can’t continue forever). The children look on in awe – if the kids I know are anything to go by, they are probably encouraging Rexy.

Okay, so here is finally a sign that this book indeed comes from 1993. When it’s time to draw a dromaeosaur, any book must inevitably show its age. Even though this Deinonychus doesn’t look all too different from the dromaeosaurs that would appear eight years on in Walking With Dinosaurs. Tenontosaurus must once again suffer the tragic fate of being raptor chow. Another dinosaur that takes center stage is Ceratosaurus, and for all the times we’ve seen this beast restored as a ponderous, corpulent monstrosity, here we see it as a sleek, strong hunter that moves at a brisk pace. Too bad the fold doesn’t do it any favours. I love Braginetz’ sauropods. They completely avoid the all-too-common grey elephant look, they have accurate postures and even accurate hands and feet (although you can’t see it on this particular page).

This is my favourite image from the book. We’ve seen speculative cryptic colouration on hadrosaurs before, but never has the result been this immediately striking and memorable. A sharp green and white, and still the Kritosaurus disappears in the woods. And can you even spot Yandusaurus and Massospondylus? An instant modern classic from Braginetz, a highlight in a book of highlights.

Dinosaurium is a book of outstanding quality. I don’t want to oversell it – it has under 50 pages, is written for a very young audience and its whimsical style won’t be up everyone’s alley – but taken all that into account this book is nothing short of amazing. There’s very few dino books from that overstuffed year of 1993 that I would actively recommend you check out in 2021. Dinosaurium is one such book. From now on, this is the standard against which all other dinosaur books for kids are measured.

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  • Reply
    July 16, 2021 at 1:48 am

    What a gem indeed! The idea of a dinosaur museum in which the dinosaurs wander around in restricted but naturalistic spaces reminds me a lot of the “dino-store” depicted in the 1991 children’s picture book A Boy Wants a Dinosaur.

  • Reply
    July 16, 2021 at 8:02 am

    Wow! Thank you for sharing this book, I definitely want to pick up a copy for myself now. I honestly really love when dinosaur illustrations blend a bit of fantasy in by putting them in modern settings- it really helps drive home their size and how they might have looked in real life. Beautiful illustrations here, Braginetz’ subtle stylization is so lovely. Also, that Euoplocephalus on the Dinosaur Corral page really wants a pat, too! So cute

  • Reply
    Zain Ahmed
    July 16, 2021 at 3:56 pm

    Holy crap. Adter all these years, a classic of my childhood library visits has emerged once more! I must remember to seek it out once more!

  • Reply
    Dino Dad Reviews
    July 16, 2021 at 11:57 pm

    Aww heck yeah! I’ve been trying to remember the name of this one for years. One of my local branch libraries had a copy, though just my luck it was the branch we visited least often. Yet these striking illustrations have stuck with me ever since! That Kritosaurus scene alone would make any book iconic. I’m surprised this book isn’t more widely appreciated.

    • Reply
      Niels Hazeborg
      July 29, 2021 at 4:36 pm

      Go forth and spread the word! Donna B is even on social media, but she seems to keep a low profile in the community. If you read this: big fans here.

  • Reply
    Yasmin Foster
    July 19, 2021 at 7:24 am

    That camouflage image truly is gorgeous. I’d have that as a print framed on my wall (minus the people)

  • Reply
    Grant Harding
    July 19, 2021 at 11:57 am

    What’s Donna Braginetz doing these days?

  • Reply
    George Starr
    July 27, 2021 at 1:36 pm

    This is AMAZING! This book IS the new gold standard for children’s dinosaur books. Donna Braginetz was so far ahead of her time, it’s hard to believe time travel wasn’t involved.

    I want to imagine an alternate reality where this book (and Braginetz’s copious talent), rather than THAT MOVIE, paved the way for our current pop-culture dinosaur obsession.

    Yes, I know it’s a ridiculous notion, but I can dream can’t I? 😉

    • Reply
      Niels Hazeborg
      July 29, 2021 at 4:34 pm

      This guy gets it.

      All I want is just for there to be an alternative franchise.

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