It’s Don and Donna month here at LITC! I will be reviewing a few volumes in a series of books written by superstar dinosaur author, robot builder, TV presenter and firebrand “Dino” Don Lessem and illustrated by superstar palaeoartist Donna Braginetz. Published by Carolrhoda Books, each of these books is a small but in-depth entry level look at one species (or in this case family) of dinosaur, well researched and richly illustrated.
Lessem worked with a few different palaeoartists in this series (inluding one notorious mr. David Peters, who has since sadly lost his mind) but I will be focusing on his collaboration with Donna Braginetz for now, whose work impressed me so in that unusual but wonderful book called Dinosaurium. That book holds up so well that I wondered if she didn’t secretly own a time machine. The time machine stays home this time. The truth is that, of the four volumes she illustrated in this series, three concern species of coelurosaur which are now all understood to be feathered, and the fourth is about a now obsolete genus of sauropod. So they have all inevitably aged a bit. Not that the illustations are any less great for it.
Today’s volume is perhaps the only non-technical book in history entirely devoited to the noble ornithomimosaurs! I don’t think they make the top favourite list of very many dino enthousiasts (at least, they wouldn’t have until Deinocheirus was uncovered), but leave it to Don and Donna to get you excited about these lanky saurian oddballs that, we now know, are the sister group to the maniraptorans. The book hails from 1996. At this point in time, the tropes of the dino renaissance were becoming well established and the idea of speedy dinosaurs was no longer radical. With Gallimimus getting an appearance in That Movie, there was probably enough interest in ornithomimids to include them in this series.
Let’s start by setting the scene. Here’s the Dinosaur Park formation, as imagined by Donna Braginetz. Herds of ceratopsids and lambeosaurine hadrosaurs inhabit the background, with Stegoceras and Parasaurolophus more prominent. Enter Ornithomimus stage right, lurking in the shadows, clearly up to no good. Interestingly, the designs and colour scemes of the animals are basically the same as, or very similar to, the way they were in Dinosaurium. Like the Sibbicksaurs, the Donnasaurs are characters in their own right, going on different adventures! However, if Dinosaurium was whimsical and stylized, for these books Braginetz employs a more realistic, natural style. This is some great atmospheric work, with the use of light and shade. I love the fully realized pastoral environment, though I’m not sure how excusable all the grass is. Was it widely known at the time that this type of grass was basically non-existent in the Mesozoic? If we’re charitable, we might interpret it as moss.
This is the first time we get a good full body look at Braginetz’ ornithomimids, with Sruthiomimus representin’. For the time, this is as good an ornithomimid as you were likely to see anywhere. Everything about it, from its clearly defined musculature (with big upper legs and thin lower legs) to its weird, lanky neck, indicates the build of a speedster. Although, like the ostrich, it has a somewhat awkward build, it looks a lot more natural and less awkward than the movie design. Interestingly, this one doesn’t even have the Greg Paul-style pronated bunny hands, though they are still present elsewhere.
All of these books contain a size chart featuring a bunch of different dinosaurs, and they are all quite different. For this one, the dinosaurs occupy a block chart, and it seems Size Comparison Silhouette Guy is trying to take them on in a cycling contest – appropriate for a book themed to speedy dinosaurs. Once again, we can really appreciate how Braginetz’ dinosaur reconstructions are among the very best of the 90s. They are always sleek, modern, well-researched and higly Paulian. Look at the shape of that Triceratops: that is pretty much spot on, you could put that in a book today and nobody would have any comment. Sometimes, much like Greg Paul, I feel she might even err on the side of too lithe, with the sauropod in particular seeming extremely thin by today’s standards.
What is amusing and perhaps a little bit exasperating about these books is that, like so many popular news articles about dinosaurs that are definitely not T. rex, all these books feature at least one completely gratuitous T. rex cameo of some sort. I guess Don Lessem, showman that he is, likes to play to the crowd. Here it is somewhat justified, as Lessem wants to draw attention to the difference between theropod and ornithopod feet, especially emphasizing the dewclaw that theropods have but ornithopods don’t.
Once again, the dinosaurs are modified, souped-up versions of the ones we saw in Dinosaurium. The smooth Dinosaurium designs have been given more intricate skin, scales and shades, but their shape and colours are basically the same. I particularly love how distinct Edmontosaurus and Maiasaura are made to look. In isolation, they might look similar, being just big crestless hadrosaurs, but put together like this you can really see the obvious differences, even apart from the difference in size. The T. rex, as ever, holds up really well nearly thirty years on, with Donna looking more at Greg Paul and similar rigorous fossil reconstructors rather than any preconceived idea of what a T. rex should look like. It’s a powerful, barrel-shaped brute that still looks like it might outrun you.
On this spread, Donna is tasked with illustrating six species of ornithomimid which, let’s face it, all look basically interchangeable. From left to right, these are Ornithomimus, Gallimimus, Harpymimus, Struthiomimus, Timimus and Dromiceiomimus. She rises to the challenge by simply changing the colours (only Gallimimus is an outlier in terms of size). The striking Struthiomimus colour scheme, fourth from left, is my favourite, and the one she uses the most in the book. Love me some sharp black-on-white countershading. I also dig the green giraffe spots of Timimus, to the right of Struthiomimus. If one of us were to do something similar now with an ornithomimid identity parade, we’d have access to feathers and quills to style as we saw fit. Donna in the 90s had only colour to work with, and she did a fine job. How often do you see Harpymimus and Timimus reconstructed? Timimus, from Australia, is now considered a possible tyrannosauroid, while Dromiceiomimus is a dubious taxon.
All these books end with a full colour restoration of the main character in a full environment. For all that the book is about dinosaur speedsters, the illustrations are mostly showing them standing around idly against neutral backgrounds. This scene is a little more dynamic, but not by much; with the left one munching on a morsel, the real action has presumably already taken place. It’s good to see Donna showing the dinosaurs from unusual angles; it seems she is most comfortable reconstructing them in good old lateral view. This backside view might not be the most flattering but it’s very well done, and it demonstrates well the surprising narrowness of many theropods. As you can see by the colours, here’s Struthiomimus again. Wait, speaking of colour schemes…
Donna, please tell me you did this on purpose.
I’ve got a few more of these lined up. Next time, I think we’ll look at some other sneaky cheeky theropod opportunists as we see Don and Donna tackle the troodontids!