Who remembers Zoobooks? Beginning in 1980, the richly illustrated and highly authoritative Zoobooks series made a name for itself as some of the very best educational books in the world of children’s publishing. Zoobooks were primarily distributed as mail-in magazines and hardback library copies, though I’ve also seen hardbacks sold at zoo gift shops. Most issues, as you’d expect, covered modern animals in great detail and the one devoted to dinosaurs is no different. Originally published in 1985, it was illustrated by palaeoart giant Mark Hallett and as such features dinosaurs of a firmly post-Renaissance style.
Being focused on such a varied and diverse (and largely extinct!) group of animals means that the usual Zoobooks format doesn’t quite work for this book. This volume is more of a crash-course in dinosaur palaeontology rather than focusing on specific details of ecology, conservation status, and other such facets of natural history.
We open with a familiar piece that you’ve likely all seen before. Mark Hallett’s “Awakening of Hunger” is among his earliest published works. Apologies for page fold, this page proved hard to photograph! Hallett’s Tyrannosaurus have maintained this sort of spiny-ridged look ever since this duo and it’s a look that’s hard to forget. The tyrannosaurs are imposingly beefy, with powerful legs that wouldn’t look out of place on a modern reconstruction. The rest of their anatomy, much as I love them, raises some questions. The torso seems strangely abbreviated and the skulls are unusually blunt, almost like a half-way point between the skull of the real animal and the toad-headed weirdos of older palaeoart. Take note of the tarsal scutes on the feet, the variety of scaly textures, and camouflaged pattern; there’s a lot to like here!
The Pteranodon flock flying overhead are products of their time, looking rather more avian than we’re used to today and possessing a skull that doesn’t quite match either of the known species. It’s a little hard to tell but they do possess a fine fuzzy coat, so props to Hallett for that! Of particular note is the strange folded posture of the legs, something that was near-consensus at the time and still the favoured hypothesis of Kevin Padian, though no other pterosaur specialists seem to agree. Oddities aside, this painting is brilliantly moody and demonstrates the value of a well painted sky and a touch of mist. It’s a scene from a time before man, where the sweltering heat and hazy horizons hid toothy reptilian monsters unlike anything alive today. Powerful stuff.
After a little primer on dinosaurs and a counterargument to the idea that they were evolutionary failures, we move on to a page answering numerous questions about various aspects of dinosaur biology. The star attraction here is a skeletal counterpart to the Awakening of Hunger T.rex, which has a pretty cool effect upon turning the page! The skull and pubic boot are well observed but the rest is rather generic dinobones. Still pretty to look at!At bottom right we have a fun little chart depicting the relative speed of four dinosaurs. Big sauropods are sluggards, ceratopsians marginally better, big theropods reaching roughly human speed, and ornithomimosaurs being veritable speed demons. These estimates are basically in line with modern ideas and this graphic could easily see use in a newer publication if not for the scaly skin of the ornithomimosaur.
The 80s were a weird time for dinosaur books, you could pick any two off the shelf and get two completely different answers to the question of whether dinosaurs were intelligent or not. Zoobooks falls firmly into the modern school of thought and is even more progressive than a lot of newer material. The comment about brain size being a poor indicator of brain power reflects a lot of recent research into animal intelligence and fires the reader’s imagination; just what was a dinosaur’s mind really like? This sort of brain-to-brain comparison is a staple of Dinosaur Renaissance artwork and I’m a little sad that we don’t see them anymore. This theropod (Troodon?) looks rather naked, but Hallett never fails to make his dinosaurs feel alive. Its cat-like glare and interesting patterning make it feel every bit as real as the wolf it’s being compared to. Dunce-o-saurus is cute, I’m a sucker for dopey cartoon dinosaurs.
This issue of Zoobooks uniquely contains several fold-out spreads that, while gorgeous and packed full of information, utterly suck to photograph. We’ll have to take a look at these one step at a time. Before we dive into the details, take a moment to really appreciate what’s going on here. This is a COOL spread! Every step in the process of restoring a dinosaur (T.rex again, big surprise) is detailed, from assembling the skeleton, layering the muscles, and making educated guesses about the external appearance right down to debate over things like the skin patterns or the extent of keratin on horns and claws. This is high-end stuff made accessible even to a child too young to really understand the text.
First off is this rather odd little section. Hip shape surely can tell you a lot about posture, locomotion, etc. but I can’t say I’ve ever heard it suggested that T.rex was a tail-dragger at rest and a Paulian speed-demon in action. One could chalk that up to the books mid-80s publication date but the rest of the book is so progressive that it seems out of place! Maybe Hallett was under the impression he was doing a “before and after” illustration showing how our knowledge of dinosaur posture has progressed and caption-writer took it another way.
Comparisons between mammalian and dinosaurian predators always make the former seem positively cute by comparison, but the conclusions being drawn here are sensible and are exactly the sort of reasoned inferences that separate the good from the bad in palaeoart. Anyone can draw a drooling Godzilla-wannabe, few can make a big theropod feel like a genuine animal. Hallett’s Rex is firmly in the second category; this is a T.rex that lives in a realized world, adapted for stalking through dense woodland and ambushing a hadrosaur just as a tiger might to an unlucky Sambar deer.
This also demonstrates what I feel is an important principle of good palaeoart; taking inspiration from nature without copying it outright. The pattern on this Tyrannosaurus evokes a tiger, sure, but the colour choice and exact patterning themselves are unique. Non-avian dinosaurs can seem almost like mythological monsters without this touch of familiarity to ground them.
How spiky do you like your tyrannosaur eyebrows? Ambiguity in reconstruction is a rare topic in books aimed at children, more often you’re just given a piece of art and left without question as to what parts are wild guesses, reasoned speculation, or hard facts. As a kid I remember this section being something of a personal revelation and I know I spent the better part of an afternoon sketching different styles of eye-ridges to adorn a simplified T.rex skull.
The partially cropped close-up of the T.rex head shows off Hallett’s masterful texturework once again. His T.rex reminds me of the cracked keratin of a crocodile’s face which is one of the many looks currently in vogue for the Tyrant Lizard.
After this point, T.rex takes a backseat to other dinosaurs though it still pops up a few more times. Seeing as there’s still a LOT left, I’ll stop here and let the suspense build. Next time we’ll be looking at an overview of major dinosaur clades, dinosaur behaviour, dinosaur extinction, and the origins of those ever-so-strange feathered dinosaurs we know as birds.