If you asked me to list my top five or ten favorite educational kid’s books on prehistory, Hannah Bonner’s “When” series (of which she is both author and illustrator) would make the list every time. She somehow manages to get pack an amazing range of topics and information into these books, while remaining incredibly approachable and easy-to-read. It’s the sort of readability one would expect of a much more lightweight sort of book, and yet she never skimps on the details. I always enjoy the artwork of these books as well. The series self-describes itself as a “cartoon prehistory”, though the illustrations liberally mix stylized realism with more outright cartoons in their depictions of prehistoric life.
If I had to describe the “When” books in a word, it would be “holistic”. Bonner makes a point of shining the spotlight on oft-overlooked aspects and residents of prehistoric environments. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many prehistoric bugs and plants called out by their actual names in any other popular book. But I don’t call them holistic merely for the numbers of species included. While some are occasionally given their own little features within the book, for the most part the creatures inhabit their environment and interact with each other in a way that tends spread out over the whole page, with frequent insets highlighting particular aspects of the subjects under discussion. This means the books rather effectively avoid an encyclopedia or DK-Eyewitness-style diagrammatic format. Everything always feels very organic and natural, even in more cartoonish scenes with the stars engaging in decidedly non-natural activities. Bonner always does a good job with landscape scenes as well, giving the reader a very good feel for the environment at the particular time periods depicted.
Today’s review specifically concerns the second book in the series, When Fish Got Feet, Sharks Got Teeth, and Bugs Began to Swarm (though it should really be first, chronologically, as it covers the earliest time periods so far). Now, while I praise this book for its readability, keep in mind that it aims for slightly older, grade-school-age kids who have more than a passing interest in prehistory. Additionally, most of Bonner’s books seek to educate her readers on the time before the dinosaurs, which otherwise tend to get little popular coverage. With that in mind, I apologize if I use some terms unfamiliar to the average person, but rest assured that all terms and concepts are clearly explained and put into context in the book, in a way I think anyone can understand. This particular book covers the Silurian and Devonian periods, a time which saw the rise of vertebrates and life’s transition out of the water and onto land, among many other changes. Bonner often chronicles some of the changes with faux news reporters, such as cephalopod meteorologists commenting on the changing climate, or in this case, a silly newspaper article on the “invention” of jaws among fish.
I rather liked the “fish race” in the middle of the book that looks at the four major groups of fish in the Devonian. It’s a clever way of representing how each group fared throughout this period, as some groups gradually lag behind, with only sharks and bony fishes making it to the “finish line”. As it spreads out over several pages, I had trouble figuring out a way to give a good sense of it without just scanning and stitching the entire thing together, so I’ll just show the shark highlight page, which is fairly representative of the sequence.
Now, I’m a sucker for comparative anatomy, so my absolute favorite illustration appears in the back of the book, as Bonner talks about the first tetrapods (the group that includes all land-dwelling vertebrates). I absolutely love how this image allows the reader to easily compare the similar body parts, and to see how they were gradually co-opted for different uses in successive generations of animals. I also found the comparison between the human baby and the early tetrapod both genius and adorable. (Bonus historical fact: the author states in the appendix that Tiktaalik, the second creature from the top of this image, was discovered after she’d already sketched out the end of the book, necessitating a bit of a last-minute rewrite! That means this is among the first popular books to have ever featured this incredibly important species.)
This book is an excellent introduction to the important events of the mid-Paleozoic Era, probably the among the best, in fact! The clear, easy to read text and the wide range of crisp illustrations make for a very informative book that I enjoyed very much myself, but also make it very useful for grade-school age kids as well. This book will be well-loved by any enthusiast of prehistory, especially those interested in life before the dinosaurs. I heartily give this the Dino Dad Stomp of Approval… though I suppose I should put a bit of an asterisk here in this case. While I have this as its own individual book, it has since been released in a collected volume with the other two books in the series (including When Bugs Were Big, Plants Were Strange, and Tetrapods Stalked the Earth, which I’ve also reviewed), that includes some updates to the science as new discoveries have come to light. If you like the look of this book, I recommend saving a few bucks and some shelf space by buying that volume. You won’t regret it!