As exemplified on the cover, the art style is somewhat cartoonish and stylised, with lovely bold washes and expressive animal faces. While maintaining an at least semi-serious approach to restoring extinct beasties, there is a certain irreverence in Michael Frith's style that is matched in the Hornblows' text. It's the sort of kid-friendly approach that doesn't shy away from describing creatures, very bluntly, as being dumber than a big heap of Fox News.
Scientifically, the book is certainly of a retro bent, as demonstrated no better than by its submersible sauropods. Frith's 'brontosaur' is a rather sad-looking, lumpen thing - like a sack of potatoes with a sullen turtle face poking out. Poor Bronto also suffers the indignity of being described as, yes, "terribly dumb". Still, I do like the inclusion of a lead on to the next page, featuring...
...Brachiosaurus, living in the awfully convenient Just So Lake (cue music). Of course, everything's better down where it's wetter; for here, the mush-brained titan could dine on water plants far away from the slavering jaws of tottering, tripodal theropods. Frith's illustration has definite shades of Burian, although Burian's water was notably less pink.
While slightly-less-than-contemporary science unfortunately reduces sauropods to uninteresting dullards, Frith has more fun with creatures that are permitted to be a little more active. His Stegosaurus looks fantastically cross, and seems poised to lash out at the nearby theropod, itself posed as if it is hitching up the edges of its skirts. The big girl's blouse. I love the declaration that Stegosaurus "liked cactus best of all" - there might not be an awful lot of evidence behind it, but such remarks add colour to a kids' book like this. Or at least, they make me smile. That's good enough, right? You'll permit me just this one, won't you? Wah!
Arranged in chronological order, the book moves on from the Jurassic to the Cretaceous, and so to hilariously goofy-looking retro-hadrosaurs. When I posted the above image on Facebook, a number of commenters remarked that it looked like a socket puppet - as indeed it does. It also has the mournful bovine eyes and frowny face to match its rather sorry state. In keeping with the submarine sauropods, hadrosaurs are here depicted as weird, saggy-skinned, web-fingered cowards with improbably shaped aqualungs attached to their (sock puppet) heads. They did the strangest things...like diving underwater when menaced by frog-headed tyrannosaurs (as below).
The pachycephalosaur isn't mentioned in the text, so it's not explicitly referred to as a hadrosaur, although this is somewhat implied. It's notable for looking rather nonplussed as the peanut-headed ones go for a splash.
Other retro dino book staples include Styracosaurus as a slightly less predictable stand-in for Triceratops. Referred to as the 'Frilly Monster', our pudgy hero 'clumps along' looking suitably grumpy as the local theropods timidly wave hello. I always enjoy the doughy, dragging tails these animals are given in books like these - '70s ceratopsians were often a world away from the glamorous, lame-joke-cracking movie stars of today.
As Triceratops' low-rent substitute, it's down to poor Styracosaurus to take on Rexy Frogmouth. It seems unfair that, of all the anachronistic animals it could fight, Styracosaurus was so often pitched against an animal that could defeat it by sitting on it. I think One Million Years BC was onto something in picking Ceratosaurus instead. But I digress. Rexy's a bit of a mess anatomically, with a weirdly pear-shaped body and puny legs, although his shark-black eyes (with red...pupils? Highlights?) are marvellous. More dark-eyed tyrannosaurs, please (see also: this model).
Of course, it's not all dinosaurs in this book - they just happen to be the illustrations that we're most interested in. The book runs the gamut from the origins of life to the modern day in its wonderfully playful style, featuring along the way a highly sinister Dimetrodon (above). To stare into its eyes is to seek only a profound emptiness that will penetrate your psyche and lead you to question the ultimate morality and purpose of your every act. Especially if you're a little pink-and-purple salamander-thingy.
Moving much further down the synapsid line, and Smilodon is also given a strikingly distressing treatment, no matter how Hanna-Barbera it might look. I'm especially fond of its evil grin. The text describes how Smilodon "stabbed and stabbed" its prey, before opening its mouth incredibly wide to wolf down great hunks of meat. It concludes:
"All the Smiladons [sic] died out thousands of years ago. That's a good thing. A Smiladon was cruel even when he was a kitten."Great stuff.
And finally...the book pays a well-deserved tribute to Mary Anning, culminating in this illustration of an ichthyosaur mount apparently modelled on a bounding dog. Still, the text here is quite lovely; a welcome reminder that modern palaeontology has been built through the dogged hard work of hundreds of individuals, and it's worth taking a moment to pay our respects. Here's to you, Mary Anning! And here's to Frith and the Hornblows for such a charming book. They don't write 'em like this anymore, etc...