I love a good alphabet book. The fact that the author has to find one animal for each letter inevitably means they have to make a lot of choices. Some letters have lots of candidates – Do we put Tyrannosaurus or Triceratops under ‘T”? – which means painful cuts need to be made. Other letters, like Q and Z, only have some deeply obscure taxa that you wouldn’t otherwise see in a mainstream dinosaur book. At the same time, the author must take care to show a varitey of animals across the entire spectrum of dinosaur diversity. How they do it says a lot about the author and how they think.
The ur-example of dinosaur alphabets surely is Wayne Barlowe’s Alphabet of Dinosaurs, written by Peter Dodson. Recently, our friend Steve White has submitted his own macabre entry into the subgenre. Today, I want to look at one you might not know.
The Dinosaur Alphabet Book, of 1991 vintage, is one of a good handful of alphabets written by Jerry Pallotta, predating Barlowe’s alphabet by a couple of years. Bostonian Pallotta also has a handful of other series of gimmicky children’s books to his name (notably a series called “Who Would Win”). In his old age, he’s now got himself YouTube channel and a podcast about children’s literature, so here’s a guy who is down with the youths. Illustrator Ralph Masiello has a similarly productive portfolio and an active web presence to this day. I wouldn’t call either of them a dinosaur specialist; dinosaurs are just one of the many subjects they’ve happened to cover over the years.
For all that, this alphabet book is pretty interesting and somewhat unconventional. It’s a children’s book painted in broad strokes with dinosaurs in primary coulours and a simplified, stylized art style. It starts with the front cover, which shows a bunch of dinosaurs (and a pterosaur) that aren’t even going to appear in the book! Nope, T was never going to be for you, Tsintaosaurus. As you can already tell, Masiello likes to break up the primary colours of his dinosaurs with some tiger stripes, which we always like. The dinosaurs look quite tropey, with Deinonychus in its old Bakkerian guise, Spinosaurus with a generic carnivore head and Stegosaurus round and Knightian. We’ll see that there’s some surprising progressive elements to the book, as well.
Some letters, like A, have just one obvious candidate (sorry Allosaurus, but we’ve got to reach that thyreophoran quota) so let’s start here with Baryonyx, in honour of the late Dr. Angela Milner. It’s a biped in the picture, but the text here is pretty bizarre, implying that if it was a qadruped and its claws would go on its legs, they would have bumped into its arms. Did Milner and her colleagues really not know that the claw went on the front paw? I’m not sure, but the quadrupedal Baryonyx trope is one we saw occasionally in the 80s and 90s before dying off. I like the reeds, and I also like how Masiello gives his dinosaurs big, pronounced lips. No loud primary colours here.
The longest spread in the book is for one of the longest dinosaurs. Masiello makes Diplodocus particularly gracile and gives them long lanky legs. It’s also surprisingly wrinkly around the joints, as if it has a lot of loose-hanging skin there. It’s got sort of a skin flap running along the bottom of its neck, like the reverse of Vatagin’s sauropods. I appreciate the speculative aspect but it also looks a bit awkward, especially on the back legs. The text makes Diplodocus into a gentle giant, which it might well not have been.
Several things with the Edmontosaurus. First of all, it’s obvious that Masiello has made this one an old-fashioned trachodont, a swamp-dweller from the Knight generation. Second, I don’t think the image quite gets the shape of the head right, compared to other hadrosaurs in the book. I love the muted colour scheme with the pebbly green spots and the minimalistic moodiness of the swamp. You can see how the text really doesn’t take itself very seriously and tries to connect ancient animals to everyday life. Pallotta brings up dentists, eating your greens and going to school , bringing a sense of realness to these creatures that children might respond to
What is this I can’t even. If the Edmontosaurus is this book at its most retro, this Fabrosaurus on the opposite page is about as outlandish as they come. Painted in the loudest colours and given the most magnificent blue lateral frills I’ve ever seen, this one doesn’t half look like a critter from Dougal Dixon’s books on speculative evolution. All this lovely speculation seems way ahead of its time, though I wouldn’t exactly call this colour scheme very plausible. The torso has this tiger-like camouflage, which is then offset by a bright blue tail and a green and blue head. It’s an excessive cock’s comb, but blue. What’s it with making Fabrosaurus brightly coloured anyway? More people did that in the nineties. Is it because its name almost but not quite looks like the German word for “colours”?
I appreciate how Pallotta drip-feeds tidbits of random dinosaur information to the reader over the course of all these pages, though the choice to discuss dinosaur extinction on a page featuring an animal from the very beginning of the dinosaur age is perhaps not one that I would have made.
Gallimimus, too, finds itself on the more progressive and speculative end of the spectrum, with another loud and busy colour scheme and some lovely, Paulian wattles. I suppose feathers would have been too much to ask for. It’s also curiously been given a bright yellow bird-like beak. Gallimimus did have a beak, but it was more of a horny sheath covering its snout, not a goose-like beak shown here. Gallimimus also had a pointy bird beak in Dinosaurs! Magazine, maybe one illustration influenced the other.
Here’s one of my favourites in the book, a lovely silhouetted Jaxartosaurus hiding among the bamboo. A little flair for stylization goes a long way. Lots of atmosphere to this one. Jaxartosaurus is absolutely one of those animals that we would not have seen in a book like this if the author didn’t need an animal that started with a J. Indeed, I’m having a hard time thinking of many other dinosaurs with a name that starts with J (I think Barlowe and Dodson used Janenschia). I love the observation thar ducks are “dinosaur-billed birds” rather than the other way around. Too right! Hadrosaurs did it first!
So not all dinosaurs then. I appreciate how Pallotta acknowledges that marine reptiles aren’t dinosaurs, and on the occasions he introduces a non-dinosaur to the reader, he also adds in a proper dinosaur with the same letter to compensate – Kentrosaurus is also in this book! Not much to say about Kronosaurus otherwise except I like how Masiello gives it an almost innocent grin and those big lips once again.
Surprisingly, there’s not that many big stompy stompy monster theropods in this book, and they generally aren’t Masiello’s strong suit. I appreciate the way Masiello simplfies the dinosaurs for this book, but I’m not too sold on the triangular, lizard-like head on this one. There’s no blatant Parker-copying going on and the colour scheme is low-key but funky, but otherwise this one is a bit awkward.
Look at that! Oviraptor has been cleared of all charges of nest-raiding, as early as 1991! I’ve seen books and other media that came out later, sometimes much later, that still made this beautiful, bird-like dinosaur into a good-for-nothing nest robber. Well… maybe it was an egg eater after all. Still, justice for Oviraptor, type F in the comments. More of those Greg Paul-style wattles on this guy. Seems like Masiello’s influences really came from all over the place.
Some more words here on possible explanations for dinosaur extinction. I had heard the “mammals ate all dinosaur eggs” one before, but the supernova radiation idea was new to me! It’s incredible to think how recent the asteroid impact idea is, and how much more recent still its wide acceptance among experts.
We’re about half way through (as you can see, I’m covering them in alphabetical order) so stay tuned for the other half. The Dinosaur Alphabet Book will return.