The How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs (Or THWWBD for, er, short) is just one among a huge number of How and Why Wonder books; other titles in the series included Seashore, Castles, Chemistry, Fish, Primitive Man, Winning of The West, The Old Testament, and The Tower of London. Back in the 1970s, if there wasn't a How and Why Wonder Book on a certain topic, it probably wasn't worth knowing about (or so it would seem). THWWBD was first published in 1965, with my edition arriving in 1974. Happily, it is completely of its time; there isn't the merest hint of a horizontal theropod, an animal with even one foot off the ground (except when clawing another dinosaur's hide), or a sauropod that isn't a charmingly tubby kebab for allosaurs who've been out on the lash. The cover says it all - this is a primeval world in which 'brontosaurs' hang around in swamps, keeping a wary eye on skulking, Nosferatu-esque theropods while volcanoes continually erupt and cheeky pterosaurs zoom nimbly by. It's absolutely marvellous.
It's easy to see why so many people have fond memories of this book. Quite apart from the fact that it's a quintessentially 'pre-Renaissance' work, the text is lively and entertaining. The author - Darlene Geis - received scientific supervision and knew what she was talking about, for although this repeats many of the now-discarded silly tropes of the era (aquatic sauropods etc. etc.), you will not find any errors as outrageous as featuring Tyrannosaurus and Stegosaurus in the same scene. In fact, it complies completely with the orthodoxy of the time. The illustrations, by Kenyon Shannon, follow in the fine pre-Renaissance tradition of glancing briefly at the real animal's skeleton, shrugging one's shoulders and drawing whatever the hell one likes, with the 'cheap monster movie costume' Allosaurus above being a prime example. You've got to love his dancer's legs.
This beloved Bronto has featured over at SV-POW!, where Mike Taylor notes that "this is the Brontosaurus I grew up with", adding that while it's very easy to point out its multitude of anatomical flaws, "the part that’s most shocking...is just how darned fat it is" - a 'lardy bloater', no less. Indeed, while Apatosaurus was a notoriously robust animal, old-school illustrators tended to exaggerate this to the point at which they started resembling the sort of gelatinous blob that would be at home threatening Steve McQueen. Of course, none of this is to deny the artist's skill in shading this illustration - like all of the others in the book it has, for all its inaccuracies, a pleasing organic fluidity about it.
Although obvious references to the work of other palaeoartists are quite rare, it's easy to detect shades of Burian in this illustration of an underwater Brachiosaurus pair - the most obvious difference being that the foreground sauropod has its back turned to the viewer. While the text describes a "dome with nostrils in it" on the top of the sauropod's head, this seems to have collapsed on the animals in the illustration (maybe it was the water pressure). That said, it's noteworthy that - unlike the Bronto - the brachiosaurs are not grotesquely fat, which may well be a result of the Burian influence. Nevertheless, we're told that "[Brachiosaurus] couldn't move around much on land. He couldn't swim in the water. It must have been a dull way to live - even for a dinosaur." Poor old Brachiosaurus...
When it comes to Stegosaurus, Shannon takes the route of exaggerating its key attributes, resulting in a truly bizarre-looking beast indeed; it also appears to be lacking any shoulders to speak of (a fate that also befell many a Burian-style Bronto over the years). Of course, the excessively low position of the head was inherited from the work of Charles Knight and, ultimately, Marsh's skeletal reconstruction - however, the huge plates on Shannon's hump-backed creature look like petals radiating out from a flower. In spite of this, it's still possible to appreciate (again) the artist's flair for shading, creating beautifully blended fleshy contours. The strong, monochromatic style works perfectly to compensate for the book's rather low print quality.
One of the best examples of the effectiveness of this unfussy style in this context is the Iguanodon. The restoration of the animal is typical for its time, with a highly upright posture reliant on an impossibly bent tail. However, it has a wonderful statuesque quality achieved with very precise and careful shading, and the page is effectively laid out to maximise the impression of this creature's awesome size. Also noteworthy are the apparently massive muscles in the animal's legs and arms - especially the latter, as Iguanodon was commonly depicted with curiously weedy forelimbs prior to resuming quadrupedalism in the '80s.
Towards the back of the book, the quality of the illustrations takes something of a nosedive (maybe the deadline was looming), resulting in some rather demented, cartoonish beasties. My favourite is undoubtedly the crested creature here identified as Mosasaurus (although it's likely that the labels for Mosasaurus and Tylosaurus were swapped), which looks like it would probably squeak like a dog's chew toy if you squeezed it. The pupil with the centre missing, reminiscent of Wario, adds a wonderful touch of the deranged. On the other hand, this might be the only kids' dinosaur book to ever feature not only the little-heard-of pliosaur Brachauchenius, shown here as the pointy-faced bright green fellow being laughed at by Plesiosaurus, but also the fish Hoplopteryx. Why, Hoplopteryx is so obscure, its Wikipedia entry consists of a single sentence declaring it to be a fish from the Cretaceous. Definitely the generic name to drop at cool parties; just remember, you heard about it before it became famous.
Inevitably, everyone's favourite Maastrichtian macropredator and movie star features in not one, but three separate illustrations, and even receives a double-page spread all to itself. This is definitely your father's T. rex, which means that although it's diagonal-spined and tail dragging, it's happily still an up-for-anything cold-blooded killer (rather than the slowly ambulating carcass disposal unit it became in popular books for a while in the '70s and '80s). The illustration is, obviously, Very Wrong but nevertheless is wonderfully evocative; here is the ultimate giant killer of the Cretaceous, its talons poised and with a wicked glint in its beady eye.
Tyrannosaurus also receives the honour of being the only carnivorous dinosaur to be depicted battling with its prey, as described in a rollicking narrative style typical of the kids' dino books of the time (but better than average). Artists have long struggled to depict tyrannosaurs and ankylosaurs engaged in a convincing fight, especially back when the former were depicted as upright 'tripods'. Shannon's attempt is fairly typical, with T. rex struggling to stoop down while receiving a stern reprimand from its grumpy, turtle-like prey. The T. rex v Triceratops illustration is just fantastic, with Rexy feebly scraping its opponent's frill while Triceratops, standing firm, prepares to administer a very pointy horn to the privates. Meanwhile, Geis seems to take great pleasure in the thought of these two mighty animals having at it:
"[Triceratops] charges like a rhinoceros at the much bigger Tyrannosaurus rex. The earth shakes as these two monsters come together. Every other sound is hushed as the two giants fight it out. Tyrannosaurus rex swings his great jaws open and drops down to slash at his foe's back...This narrative adds immensely to the appeal of the book, and must have been very captivating for child readers back in the day. In spite of the prevailing scientific attitude of the time (i.e. that they were dull, listless evolutionary failures), here dinosaurs are brought to life in an immediate, exciting way - we are encouraged to imagine them going about their lives, rather than as a series of staid facts and figures. Silly as it all seems to modern eyes, it's easy to appreciate why this book is so fondly remembered, and I'm very happy to have it in my collection.
...But Tyrannosaurus rex has been stabbed, and his breath comes in gasps. He cannot turn and run for his life. He must obey his hunger which tells him to get meat in his jaws...again Triceratops charges with his sharp horns..."