Saturday, March 19, 2016

How Big Were Dinosaurs?

There's been a little bit of a dry spell here at From Tots to Teens.  This fall I served on the Cybils panels for Early Readers and Easy Chapter Books (the eventual winners are listed here ).  While I loved the experience, it took every bit of my reading and writing energy up until the end of December.  Once we made our choices, I was ready to start writing about some of those exciting books, but..we went on vacation, and then got sick, just like everyone else does in January.  The best part of this is that I have a pile of great books to talk about, but that pile only gets higher and higher. At least in February I was able to participate in a couple of terrific blog tours for Catherine's Pascha and Deborah Hopkinson's Beatrix Potter picture book nonfiction.  

So while I read for the Cybils and spent time with the girls, this book has been patiently waiting to be reviewed.  I have loved Lita Judge's books for a few years now.  Red Sled is a book the girls keep going back to, especially on snowy days.  Then I read Bird Talk on a different Cybils panel, and fell in love with Judge's method of combining illustration with fact.  And this winter I was lucky enough to review Judge's newest picture book, Hoot and Peep, for School Library Journal, where it was given a starred review!  So when we found How Big Were Dinosaurs? at our local library, I wanted to call your attention to it.  

How Big Were Dinosaurs? starts out by directly challenging our perceptions of dinosaurs: "When we think of dinosaurs, we think of huge MONSTERS.  But how big were dinosaurs really?"  Instantly, readers picture all of the dinosaurs they've seen in the media.  One of my favorite people to follow on Instagram is @dinosaurwhisperer, where Dustin Growick is always adding dinosaurs into familiar sights.  It's a fun thing to think about - all of us going about our business while dinosaurs tower over us, going about theirs.  As children, we all believe that every dinosaur is fierce, enormous, angry.  Now Judge is about to turn that picture in children's heads upside down.  

Each two page spread introduces a different dinosaur to readers.  There are a couple of well-known dinosaurs, like the Tyrannosaurus Rex, but there are many other dinosaurs represented here.  Judge shows readers the Torosaurus, the Struthiomimus and the Leaellynasaura, among others. The name of the dinosaur is set in a larger, colored font so it is a focus of attention.  What makes Judge's method especially interesting is how well she relates the dinosaurs of millions of years ago to our world today, allowing readers to compare those dinosaurs to something concrete in their own experience.

With the Leaellynasaura (I'm not sure I can say that once, much less three times fast!), there is first an acknowledgement of the dinosaur's odd name - "You'd think these dinosaurs were tree-eating giants."  Their name may be confusing and complicated for readers, but the facts are a little more straight-forward.  They lived in the South Pole and were only two feet tall, directly in contrast to their gigantic sounding name.  The illustrations on this spread show the dinosaurs nestled into a group of emperor penguins.  Judge incorporates humor so well into the illustrations.  All four Leaellynasaurus peer worriedly around the penguins.  Meanwhile the colony of penguins all rest contentedly with their eyes closed, totally unconcerned about the dinosaurs.

The Stegosaurus is one of the dinosaurs that will be very familiar to readers.  On this two page spread, the Stegosaurus takes up one entire page, dwarfing three bewildered cows on the other side.  The text notes that while "Stegosaurus weighed as much as three cows... he looked much bigger."  And this important fact: "Bigger isn't always smarter - this giant plant-eater only had a brain the size of a walnut."

How Big Were Dinosaurs? is one of those books that I am amazed by.  Everything on the page is meaningful and it is all designed to be relatable to the reader.  When you turn each page, you are given instant information about the featured dinosaur.  So even if you were just browsing the book, you'd see the dinosaur's name in that larger, bolder font, and then get some idea of their relative size through her illustrations.  And Judge's style serves to draw the reader back to the text.  On the spread for the Tsintaosaurus, for example, when just glancing at the illustration, the reader might think that the woman is trying to save her life by swatting at the dinosaur with an ineffectual broom. The Tsintaosaurus looms over the woman as she waves the broom threateningly.  Only through reading the text do you learn that the woman is actually trying to protect her garden from the plant-eating dinosaur.  Still, it seems to be that the broom might not be much help!

The Tyrannosaurus Rex  is another great example of this integration of text and illustration.  The illustration is of the dinosaur, laying back in a dental chair, getting his teeth cleaned.  His tiny arms flail helplessly by his sides while the hygienist brushes away.  Honestly, he looks as grumpy as we all feel at the dentist!  But while he looks harmless and humorous in the picture, the text tells us that his jaw muscles "could crunch down with ten times the force of a alligator bite."  Yikes!

Of course, the back matter in this book just add to the interplay between text and illustration.  On one spread there is informational text explaining how scientists know (or hypothesize) how big dinosaurs were by using the fossilized skeletons to estimate.  While this information isn't anything new, Judge puts her own spin on it, consistent with what's been shown in the rest of the book.  Then there is a terrific fold-out spread which compares the sizes of each of the dinosaurs mentioned in the book.  Argentinosaurus, of course, is the longest and largest and takes up most of the real estate of the four pages.  But Judge also sprinkles some of the modern references in the spread too for size comparison.  There are the cows and emperor penguins I previously mentioned along with people and cars.  This spread really made me fall in love with this book the first time I read it.  It is clever and creative and again gives young readers something to pore over and internalize.  It's really great!

I obviously can't say enough about this smart book.  I really feel that it does an amazing job bringing dinosaurs to life without sensationalizing them.  Check this book out - it just might make a dinosaur lover out of you!

How Big Were Dinosaurs? Lita Judge.  Roaring Brook Press, 2013.

 borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library