Dinos all around

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Time Tunnel

Child's Play International: 2000. £2.99, $3.99

Jigsaw Dinosaurs

Macmillan: 2000. £9.99

Going, Going, Gone

Oxford University Press: 2000. £5.99

Feathered Dinosaurs

National Geographic Society: 2000. £11.99, $17.95

Dinosaurs

Tessloff: 2000. £7.99

Dinosaurs

Marshall: 2000. £4.99

Dinosaures: Les Seigneurs de la Terre

France Loisirs: 2000. FFr122.60

Dinosaurs: The Ultimate Guide to Prehistoric Life

Collins: 2000. £17.99

Good popular books on dinosaurs, geared for young readers, have the same qualities as other popular science books. They're informative, accurate and entertaining. And because there are so many books on dinosaurs, it's refreshing when they're a bit different from the rest of the pack. If you're shopping for that young dino-freak on your Christmas list, you'll probably want a book that doesn't simply repeat what's already in half a dozen others by the bedside. So let's see what the elves at Nature have assembled for the holiday basket.

For younger readers of around 5 to 8 years old, the main attraction of Arthur L'Hommedieu's Time Tunnel is the layout of the book. Layered cutaways through all the pages reveal a sequence of receding murals, moving from a group of cavemen on the front cover back through the ages of the past as far as the Precambrian. The book opens out to expose a succession of pages on each geological period, complete with headlines of the major events and the usual jaw-breaking dead animal names that younger children love. Although nothing gets treated in depth, the deep-time effect is telling when the pages are all stretched out on the floor.

As a novelty concept, it is to be preferred to Anne Sharp's Jigsaw Dinosaurs (age 5+), which features pages of murals that become pop-out jigsaw puzzles. In contrast to children's dinosaur books of the 1960s and 1970s, newer books have been relatively current and accurate, but this book is an exception. It is filled with statements such as “some scientists think”, and “many scientists believe”, which are always to be avoided (one should describe the evidence on which those inferences are based). In its crude illustrations, animals of different time periods are grouped together, a cardinal sin, and dubious speculations are treated as fact. Besides, I had trouble putting the puzzles together when more than one set of pieces came out of the book.

Also for young readers is Barbara Taylor's Going, Going, Gone (age 6–10), a book on extinctions that has a two-page spread on dinosaurs. Its many nice photos of recently extinct and endangered charismatic plants and animals instil awareness of what we are losing. Sadly, the book ends with a spread on rare and precious gems, but it misses out the shameful international trade in scientifically valuable specimens — living and inanimate. And the opportunity is lost to show that saving charismatic animals is not enough without saving their habitats too — a problem that probably explains the disappearance of endangered living and extinct forms. A better (but quite different) choice for this age group would be Christopher Sloan's Feathered Dinosaurs, which describes with authority and clarity how we know that birds are descended from dinosaurs. The book also includes the stunning evidence from new Chinese fossil discoveries of actual feathers and other such structures on dinosaurs most closely related to birds.

Joachim Oppermann's Dinosaurs, translated from the German, is excellent for older children (age 8+) on such matters as the derivation of the scientific names of dinosaurs and the usual basic information. It treats controversies well and explains cogently how scientists arrive at their insights, although it gets dicey in some interpretations of function and lifestyle. But the illustrations are not very accurate or lifelike, and the text shows no evidence of consultation with scientists, which may explain some of the information given. Sue Nicholson's Dinosaurs is scarcely better. Its compact 'field-guide' format reduces information to boxes of factoids that mix fact with speculation.

Dinosaures: Les Seigneurs de la Terre (age 10+) is an excellent choice for your favourite francophone. Beautiful, vivid illustrations are complemented by a cogent text that first treats many of the major ideas and issues in dinosaur science, then covers most of the best-known individual dinosaurs, their habits and vital statistics. The book has enough room to stretch out on important subjects, and so should absorb parents as well. An anglophonic version is currently in the works with National Geographic Press.

Dinosaurs: The Ultimate Guide to Prehistoric Life (age 10+) by Christopher Brochu et al. is every bit as good as Dinosaures, and perhaps even more current. There's a lot of room to explore topics, the photos and illustrations are dazzling, and the prose owes little to previous dinosaur books. A team of international experts collaborated on its text and production, and the results are impressive. Older children and adults will get as much from this informed presentation as from any dinosaur book in print. Its main deficit, surprisingly given its audience, is the lack of a rigorous explanation of cladistics (the science of reconstructing evolutionary relationships) and good coverage of how the various dinosaurs are related to each other.

For all the good points of these new efforts, the best dinosaur book ever, for my money, is David Norman's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs (Salamander, 1985) (age 10+). Although now outdated in some respects, it has the most engaging and literate prose of any dinosaur book before or since, and incomparable illustrations by John Sibbick. Happily, Salamander has now reprinted it, along with a companion encyclopedia on flying reptiles by Peter Wellnhofer, as The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs and Pterosaurs. So it seems that the current spate of dinosaur books is more than adequate for holiday choices.

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