Occasionally, from time to time, I like to trick little children. And as a children's librarian in a public library, I have plenty of time and opportunity to do so. So when I'm in the right mood and I feel particularly devilish, I mosey on over to the biography section of the library and ever-so-casually pull out "The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins". After determining that no one has seen me, I then amble over to the picture book area and prominently display the book. The bait now laid, I go back to my desk and wait in anticipation. It doesn't take long. Soon the attractive cover of the book (showing a man holding a dinosaur model with a gigantic dinosaur head looming behind him) catches the eye of some wayward traipsing tot. The child will look at it, squeal gleefully, and pluck the item from the shelf without so much as a howdy-doo. My job complete, I sit back and soak in just how clever I am. You see, the kid doesn't know it yet, but I've tricked `em. They thought they were finding just another of the thousands of millions of dinosaur books out there WHEN IN FACT this book is different. It is a highly educational biography of the man who helped bring dinosaurs to the forefront of the human imagination. The book may well be many a child's first biography for this very reason. So while they think they're getting another dino book, they are in fact getting an entirely different critter altogether. It's an incredibly satisfying feeling to get a child to read something quite as good and original as this particular book. I do not regret my actions in the least.
Author Barbara Kerley explains in her afterword where she got the gumption to write about Waterhouse Hawkins in the first place. She was flipping through a book of dinosaurs one day when she came across a most peculiar picture. In it sat a group of refined late 1800s gentlemen having a formal dinner. In the belly of a dinosaur. Further research yielded a name and a fascinating story. Waterhouse Hawkins was born in London in 1807. He grew up with an interest in animalia, but with the discovery of dinosaur bones he quickly shifted his interests. As an artist, Hawkins worked diligently to create true to life full-sized dinosaur models. Though we today look at them with a critical eye (they had some real innate flaws to them) at the time they were considered the cutting edge of scientific vision. Hawkins grew in prominence (in no small part due to the aforementioned let's-eat-dinner-in-a-dinosaur idea) and even created a group of them for the grand opening of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham Park. Unfortunately, once Hawkins moved to America he was bound to come into contact with that nefarious New York politican, the corruptous of the corrupt, "Boss" Tweed. Though Hawkins had been given funding to construct a museum of dinosaurs in Central Park, Tweed diverted funds and (adding injury to insult) probably hired a group of goons to destroy Hawkins' models. But did our intrepid expatriate give in even then? No, sir! He went on to create the development of life on Earth at Princeton and made dinosaurs for the Smithsonian. By the time he died he'd lived a rich and wonderful life.
Barbara Kerley backs up all her interesting Hawkins info with a remarkable Author's Note section at the end of the book encompassing the models, the artist, Tweed, the Crystal Palace, as well as illustrator Brian Selznick's works. And the text is remarkably interesting. In fact, it closes by pointing out that because Boss Tweed's goons buried many of Hawkins' models, they may still be located somewhere deep beneath Central Park to this day. Brian Selznick is just as laudable an artist in this venture though. First of all, the book is presented as a kind of 1800s document. The title page is part announcement to a theatrical presentation part scholarly text. At the end of the book we can see the original menu feasted upon by Hawkins and his scientific cronies in the belly of one of his models. The book is perhaps most remarkable because of its dark moments. And it is here that Selznick really shines. Our encounter with Boss Tweed shows a gray formal portrait of the man with watery malicious eyes. After the destruction of his creations there's a remarkable two-page spread of Hawkins holding his head in sorrow in the midst of complete and utter destruction. The next pages show a rainy windswept Central Park with a single black figure making his way across the expanse. Heck! There's even a section at the back of the book showing how Hawkins once drew his dinos and how we know they look today.
The most difficult task of any biographical picture book is make the subject both interesting and factual. Kerley and Selznick have done this with aplomb. And unlike some life stories transferred to a mere 48 pages or so, this book has a distinctive rise and fall to the action. All in all it's a remarkable story in an attractive package that any small child could instantly take to. One of the best picture book biographies I have ever had the delight to read. A must-have for any dino-addled child.