Back in 2021, plesiosaur-lovin’ scientist Adam Smith collaborated with author Jonathan Emmett and illustrator Adam Larkum to bring us Adam’s first children’s book – which was, naturally enough, all about plesiosaurs. Or rather, one particular plesiosaur species, namely Albertonectes vanderveldei. Now, Smith and Emmett are back, joined this time by artist Stieven van der Poorten, for a book that’s all about…Tyrannosaurus rex. But wait! It’s actually about how reconstructions of the animal have changed through time, and why. So it’s not as tiresomely predictable as you might imagine, honest. Presenting: The Tyrannosaur’s Feathers (published by UCLan publishing on August 3).
Tyrannosaurus remains my favourite dinosaur in spite of everything, but I naturally can appreciate that for some people, seeing yet another children’s book about this animal will be akin to coming upon the inevitable meerkat enclosure in literally any zoo or animal park. Tedious. However, the premise here is not simply ‘T. rex big, lived 65 [sic] million years ago, sharp teeth, etc. etc.’ Rather, the book concerns itself with how our views of this creature have changed since its first discovery. Naturally, therefore, van der Poorten’s initial illustration is of a tail-dragging, three-fingered creature, straight out of the original King Kong.
Old-school T. rex seems quite contented with his appearance, but a scaly smart-arse armed with large, red book is having none of it, and so a saurian makeover begins. The first step is to raise T. rex’s tail up into the air for that appropriately horizontal posture. This is followed by adjustments to the nostrils, the addition of lips (ooh, controversial), a quick fixing of the arms and, finally, feathers. Initially, too many feathers.
Much as in The Plesiosaur’s Neck, box-outs provide further background to the decisions made by our scaly, oddly familiar-looking friend with the book (he’s a little ‘Nublarish’, you might say). Unlike the previous book, there’s absolutely nothing here that I wasn’t aware of already, but then, this book isn’t aimed at the likes of me. For its target audience, it’s succinct, accurate and accessible, and I appreciated the addition of small diagrams to further illustrate the point being made (as seen with the arm changes). There’s also a pleasing sense of humour, as made clear by the appearance of a chick-like, absurdly fluffy and yellow Tyrannosaurus when feathers are first mentioned. In fact, multiple attempts are made at giving T. rex suitable plumage, including my absolute favourite, the ‘Glamosaurus’ stage. Just for the name.
I want a model T. rex in these colours now, and I don’t care how absurd it is.
As expected, van der Poorten’s illustrations are superb throughout, striking a good balance between being stylised and characterful and being anatomically correct (in order to sufficiently convey the changes to the animal’s appearance). They are replete with small touches that may not be noticed on a first read-through, such as T. rex‘s eyes changing from having slit to round pupils when he gains lips. If I were to offer one minor critique, it would be that I’d like to have seen the teeth be more obviously tyrannosaurian, especially on the ‘retro’ lipless reconstructions; they could even have been slightly exaggerated there, to make the transition from lipless to lipped all the clearer. Still, a very minor and possibly idiosyncratic nitpick.
A fun moment in the narrative occurs when Tyrannosaurus, now decked out in lips, suitably sparse feathering and camouflage colours, turns the tables on the little scaly fellow, which is revealed to be (of course) Velociraptor. As a bonus, we are then treated to a look at how Velociraptor would actually have been fully feathered and a lot smaller than they were in…that movie. Naturally, that view of Velociraptor is now overwhelmingly accepted, but some controversies do remain over aspects of Tyrannosaurus‘ appearance that are covered here. The book does mention some of these – for example, those around how feathered it might have been – but not all. Of course, a diversion into how experts still disagree over tyrannosaurs’ facial integument might have been a step too far for what is, after all, a kids’ book.
In the end, there’s an acknowledgment that there’s still plenty we don’t know for certain, and it’s likely that our reconstructions of this animal will continue to change in the future. And that’s an excellent message – not pretending to have all the answers, or reveling in a feeling of superiority over those who came before us, but recognising that we’re part of an ongoing process, (hopefully) lead by what evidence we can unearth, and not petty prejudice or arrogance. (Look, we can only hope.) This is another excellent book for any dino-enthusiast child in your life.
It’s just a shame that I didn’t have an excuse to write my review entirely in rhyme, this time. Although I’m sure my readers won’t mind.