Out of the Blue

Out of the Blue begins with a simple question: Between the hippo, the dolphin, and the shark, which two of these animals are the closest relatives? (The answer may surprise you!) To answer the question, author Elizabeth Shreeve takes reader on a tour of the history of life on earth, highlighting major evolutionary transitions along the way.

I first found out about this book when the illustrations by Frann Preston-Gannon caught my eye on Instagram. I love it when artists can illustrate prehistoric creatures in a stylized and even cartoonish style while still accurately capturing the essence of the animals in question, and I am quite pleased with how well Out of the Blue turned out in this regard. (Mammoth is Mopey and Animals of a Bygone Era are two other books whose illustrators excel at this.) The Helicoprion on the front cover is probably the most adorable rendition of this shark relative I’ve ever seen, even if it (and especially its more detailed counterpart later in the book) don’t quite match current interpretations of the fossils (see the paleoart of Ray Troll or Csotonyi’s Discovering Sharks for some examples).

Lobefinned fish of the Devonian… speaking of, I can’t say the name of this book without getting the lyrics of Ray Troll’s Devonian Blues firmly stuck in my head! “Out of the ooze and we were born to cruise…”

I’m very impressed with the writing in this book. Clear and concise, detailed but not over-complicated, Shreeve storytelling will be immediately accessible to younger kids while avoiding the sin of talking down to them. Evolutionary transitions, while simplified, are clearly explained. Coupled with diagrams by Preston-Gannon, it becomes very easy to see how many of these changes took place, which can also also instill an appreciation for comparative anatomy in readers.

Just to demonstrate my point by way of comparison to a similar book, Out of the Blue has a significant advantage over the otherwise excellent This World Was Made For Me (from Annabell & Aiden), which delivered its information in even more of a storybook fashion, and consequently took more liberty in its descriptions of evolutionary transitions. I could potentially see readers come away from the latter book with the “but if we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” fallacy unanswered, while Out of the Blue clearly illustrates how speciation is more a matter of divergence rather than strictly competition and extinction. (Incidentally, Annabelle & Aiden’s previous book, The Story of Life, did better in this regard, though I still prefer This World Was Made For Me to its predecessor overall.)

Posing with the cephalopod page near the ammonite case at the Texas Through Time museum!

Amusingly, given the subject matter, Out of the Blue makes the perfect transition between the early reader book Grandmother Fish and the somewhat more detailed When the Whales Walked, creating something of an “evolutionary sequence” of books on evolution that can grow with your child! I would characterize this book as appealing most to early school children, though its pleasant writing and illustrations could easily appeal to younger and older kids as well.

My kids and I thoroughly enjoyed Out of the Blue, and I’m pleased to award it my Dino Dad Stomp of Approval! I highly recommend it for anyone fascinated with prehistoric life.

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