The Dog That Dug For Dinosaurs

May 21st marked the 221st Birthday of the mother of paleontology herself, Mary Anning! As one of the most famous individuals in the history of paleontology, I thought I’d mark the occasion with a review of another Mary Anning themed book. I recommend checking out the previous titles I’ve reviewed, Stone Girl, Bone Girl and especially Mary Anning’s Curiosity. (You can also find some excellent tributes to Mary Anning in the music of Professor Flint and The Amoeba People.)

Today’s book is called The Dog That Dug For Dinosaurs, written by Shirley Redmond and illustrated by Simon Sullivan. It tells the story of Mary Anning’s life from the perspective of her dog Tray, as she uncovers the first complete skeletons of amazing prehistoric sea beasts along Britain’s Jurassic Coast. It belongs to the Simon & Schuster “Ready To Read” series of books, wherein it’s listed as “Level 3”, for children who are ready for richer vocabulary and longer chapters.

Tray and Mary

While one could argue that books for a younger demographic do call for a softer hand in the technical details, I still can’t ignore a few weak points that kinda jump out at me. Most obviously, it commits the cardinal sin of referring to Anning’s discoveries as “dinosaurs”, when of course they consisted of largely unrelated reptiles, though they did live during the same geologic eras. It also seems to gloss over the novelty of her finds by having the buyer of her first skeleton mansplain to her that it’s an “Ichthyosaurus”, as if he’s somehow already familiar with this as-yet completely unknown species. While some imprecision is inevitable in the process of translating a topic like this for younger audiences, I feel that the author could have handled these two points in particular in less confusing way.

mansplained ichthyosaur
Nevermind that dinosaurs wouldn’t be described until several decades after this point…

The author also seems to have trouble deciding whether to commit to the schtick of making Tray the dog the audience’s POV character. At times the book switches entirely to Mary’s perspective, only to bring him back for some token moment of finding an odd bone somewhere.

anning and buckland

The book at least manages to roughly map out the broad beats of Anning’s life for young readers, imparting a basic knowledge to work from if they should decide to learn more about her later. The illustrations also help to keep me from turning completely against the book, as Sullivan somehow manages to really convey a sense of infectious enthusiasm in his portrayal of Mary Anning throughout the book. His reproductions of actual fossil specimens deserves praise too; it’s clear he referenced some of Anning’s actual material while working on this book.

anning's shop
I’ve heard once or twice that Mary Anning had been visited by the King of Saxony, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen their meeting illustrated before!

While the book has a few issues that it could really stand to have improved, I still want to like it, especially for its illustrations. While I can’t quite give this my Dino Dad Stomp of Approval, I do still appreciate its attempt to champion an important figure in the history of paleontology. I suppose I’d cautiously recommend this to those looking to introduce children to Mary Anning, especially if one encourages them to look deeper into some of the details that the book doesn’t quite get right.



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