A few weeks ago, I decided to treat myself and went on a bit of a paleo-themed shopping spree (I’ll be reviewing all these items eventually). At one point I found myself trying to decide between Diane Ramic’s Coloring Book of (Scientifically Accurate) Paleofauna and Yinan Wang’s 50 State Fossils. I wanted some more posts on this site promoting kids activities, so I ended up choosing the former. Serendipitously, barely a week later Wang himself contacted me via Twitter (follow @FossilLocator for more from him!) and offered to send me a complimentary copy to review! I gratefully obliged, as I’ve actually had my eye on his book for some time.
As the title implies, The 50 State Fossils discusses the officially designated fossils for all 50 United States, as well as the nation’s capital Washington D.C. For the few states that have yet to designate such a fossil, Wang suggests possible candidates appropriate for the region. On a similar note, some states don’t technically have a “state fossil” as such, but do have either a “state dinosaur” or a “state stone/gem” that just so happens to be a type of fossil (such as Florida’s Agatized Coral). Some states have both a state fossil and a state dinosaur or gem (such as California, which designated Smilodon its State Fossil, and Augustynolophus its State Dinosaur.), in which case the state fossil gets the main entry, while the alternate is mentioned in a small insert on the side of the page.
Each entry provides an illustration of the prehistoric creature in question as it may have appeared in life, a map showing regions where its fossils may be found, a brief paragraph describing them, and occasionally interesting historical facts regarding their discovery and cultural impact. Wang doesn’t shy away from going into detail about some of the more obscure and less charismatic creatures that have been designated as state fossils, and in fact evens suggests some of this sort for a few of his recommendations. The nerd in me wants even more details, but as this is a guidebook and not an encyclopedia, the amount of information is perfect for this format.
Jane Levy’s provides the illustrations for each entry. I always enjoyed seeing artists try out stylized paleoart, and Levy’s slightly cartoonish illustrations give the book a light hearted nature, while still generally clearly depicting he subjects. Her trilobites might look cute, but you can still clearly tell the difference between Ohio’s Isotelus, Pennsylvania’s Phacops, and Wisconsin’s Calymene. Many of the dinosaurs don’t fare as well, however. Many of them are rather generic-looking, and it would be hard to tell if some of them were meant to depict any species in particular unless identified in the text. A part of me feels like I’m being too critical of the illustrations when they were never meant to be rigorous diagrams or anything like that in the first place, but since most of the other illustrations strike such a good balance between precision and stylization, the dinosaurs just feel very incongruous to me.
That being said, I really enjoyed The 50 State Fossils. It makes for some fun, light reading, and finds a unique hook to tie paleontology into the wider culture. It makes a rather good companion piece to Johnson & Troll’s Cruisin’ The Fossil Freeway series in that regard, working in some paleontological outreach in the form of a cultural tour of sorts. I recommend The 50 State Fossils to fossil lovers of any age looking for an introduction to the discoveries that lie waiting in their own backyard. Whether you’re interested in fossils or Americana, this book is for you! Pick up a copy for yourself, and be sure to follow Yinan Wang @FossilLocator on Twitter!