Artist Juan Carlos Alonso’s new book Ancient Earth Journal: The Early Cretaceous (Lake Forest, CA: Walter Foster Jr., 2015, 112 pp.), co-authored with paleoartist Gregory S. Paul, is unlike any dinosaur book for young readers I’ve seen.
It combines two things I really love: learning about dinosaurs and natural history illustration. Alonso introduces the reader to dinosaurs and other creatures from a 44 million year slice of Earth’s history. This is a welcome focus for a dinosaur book, since nearly every dinosaur book attempts to cover the whole period of dinosaur history, excluding bird evolution to the present (165 million years).
This slim approach allows the book to cover a more diverse group of creatures than would otherwise be possible, with new species names to learn. And the depiction of these dinosaurs, praised by paleontologists, is done in a nature journal fashion, as if the artist is encountering them as wildlife on a nature trip. This helps to see these animals as actual, living entities, and Alonso treats us to full size illustrations as well as close up examinations of interesting anatomy. The journal is organized by different dinosaur groups (Theropods, Sauropods, Ornithiscians, Pterosaurs, and First Birds), and an introduction nicely places this wildlife in context of Earth’s geologic history and discusses what kind of plants coexisted with dinosaurs of the Early Cretaceous.
Alonso was kind enough to write a guest post for The Dispersal of Darwin (for the book’s blog tour), which I share here:
As a child I was obsessed with dinosaurs. Their size, ferocity and the fact that they’re extinct all played into their mystique. They presented more questions than answers. Back then, they were much stranger than how they are viewed now. Dinosaurs were seen as massive lumbering monsters, angrily snapping at anything within their reach. Scientists believed that the very largest were too large to support their own bodies, so they were relegated to living in the water. Everything about them seemed unnatural. They were slow, dumb and doomed to be extinct – they were an evolutionary dead end. As a matter of fact, the very word dinosaur is synonymous with outdated or extinct. Movies, books and toys also did a pretty good job of confusing our perception of prehistory as well. It seemed every movie I ever watched as a child had all prehistoric beasts like Tyrannosaurus, Brontosaurus, saber-toothed tiger and sometimes man coexisting in one chaotic time period. The truth is much more interesting and complex.
For being called a “dead end” it turns out dinosaurs were around for a long time –165 million years to be precise. If you consider our species (Homo sapiens) has been around for about 200 thousand years that was a pretty successful run. As a matter of fact, there is a greater time span between Brontosaurus and Tyrannosaurus rex (83 million years) than there is between the last Tyrannosaurus and humans (65 million years). We now know that some modern birds are the descendants of the theropod dinosaurs, so they haven’t even become extinct.
As time passed, the strange unreal monsters that I knew as a child became as extinct as the dinosaurs themselves. Dinosaurs are, and always were animals. Animals that, like any today, ate, bred and fought to stay alive to ensure the species and bloodline would continue. The mystique I knew as a child was replaced by scientific curiosity as these “monsters” became even more intriguing to me. For me prehistoric life represents a perfect amalgamation of science, fantasy and art. All three work in unison to recreate wildlife long extinct using fact, research and some speculation based on living animals to fill in the gaps.
Seven years ago I became a father. I began to re-experience childhood wonder and curiosity through the eyes of my daughter as she grew older. It brought me back to my own childhood and inspired me to write Ancient Earth Journal: The Early Cretaceous. I set out to create drawings that represented an artist’s first-hand account of studying extinct animals through a naturalist’s notebook. Much like John James Audubon, documenting bird species from previously undiscovered lands. The intent was not only to bring these animals back to life, but also to capture a snapshot of life in a 38 million year window called the Early Cretaceous. By dedicating the book to half of one period of the Mesozoic, I was able to look closely at some species rarely featured in other books and illustrate details and features that make each unique. These are the types of books that sparked my interest in both science and art as a child and it is my goal to share my interest with children.
Ultimately, I hope to write and illustrate more books in the series, each dedicated to a specific time period. This will give perspective on how some species evolved into others and illustrate Earth’s rich history of past wildlife and how our animals came to be.
The next stop on the blog tour, on August 31, is at The Children’s Book Review. And the publisher has a neat little video about the book here. I am delighted to learn that Alonso plans to continue Ancient Earth Journal books for other time periods. My interest in dinosaurs started when I was 15 and led me to a broader interest in the history of science and Darwin and evolution. And now, the giveaway!
To enter for a chance to win a signed copy of Ancient Earth Journal: The Early Cretaceous (courtesy of the publisher), please comment on this post telling me what your favorite prehistoric animal is or about an interesting museum experience dealing with paleontology. Giveaway open to residents of US or Canada only. From the entries I will randomly pick a winner. The contest will be open until Friday, September 4, midnight PST. If you would like to enter without commenting on the blog, you can send me an email at darwinsbulldog AT gmail DOT com. Good luck!