Books to feed a kid's prehistoric passion


June 18, 1993|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Staff Writer

Encouraging boys from the ages of 7 to 11 to read for pleasure isn't always easy. Now that summer vacation is here, tap into the prehistoric craze fanned by "Jurassic Park" and check out some books that boys -- and girls -- can carry home from the library without looking too uncool.

* Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, best known for two wonderfully wacky picture books, "The True Story of the Three Little Pigs" and "The Stinky Cheese Man," have also started an off-beat series for the 7-to-11 set, called "The Time Warp Trio."

"Knights of the Kitchen Table" was a School Library Journal Best Book of 1991, and it was followed by "The Not-So-Jolly Roger" and "The Good, the Bad, and the Goofy."

Now there's "Your Mother Was a Neanderthal" (Viking, $11.99, ages 7-11). Our heroes, Sam, Joe and Fred, are hanging out at Joe's house one day, dawdling over their math homework, when they decide to travel back in time to 40,000 B.C.

Joe's uncle has given him a magic book, known as The Book, that lets them take off on their trips through time. They load themselves down with modern conveniences that will impress their Cro-Magnon ancestors -- a Walkman, a Swiss army knife, a potato peeler -- only to find that when they reach their destination, they're naked. It seems clothes hadn't been invented yet.

They're found by three girls in animal-skin dresses who fall over themselves laughing at Sam, Joe and Fred, who have tied giant leaves to their waists.

"Very funny," said Fred. "We go back to the Stone Age to be kings, and we wind up doing Stupid Human Tricks for cavegirls."

There are other hip references throughout. They may date the "Time Warp Trio" in a few years, but for now, they should make the series a hit.

The sentences are short. The action is fast and furious. There are plenty of puns. Mr. Lane's illustrations are as goofy as ever. "Your Mother Was a Neanderthal" could go a long way toward convincing a kid that reading can be fun.

* Readers in search of facts, not funkiness, can find plenty of fine non-fiction books about dinosaurs. "Dinosaurium," by Barbara Brenner, illustrated by Donna Braginetz (Bantam, $16, ages 7-10) is a "Bank Street Museum Book" that presents its information as if it were giving a tour of a fantastic museum.

Double-page spreads are presented as different "halls" of the museum, such as the Hall of Ages: Jurassic, 208-145 million years ago. In the Hall of Bones, readers find out that long hip bones and high ankles show that many dinosaurs walked on their toes. Then there's the Hall of Armor, starring the triceratops and his thick-skinned kin.

The index at the back lists all the dinosaurs shown, tells where each species has been discovered and when it lived. As a bonus, there's a poster you can lift out and hang on the wall.

* A more traditional reference book is the "Macmillan Children's Guide to Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals" by Philip Whitfield (Macmillan, $16.95, ages 7-10.

Set up in chronological order, it introduces each time period with a brief overview, including a map of how the world looked. In the Triassic, for instance, all the continents were crammed together. By the late Cretaceous, about 100 million years ago, Africa and South America were drifting apart, and Australia was ceding from Antarctica.

Each chapter presents 20 or more of that era's inhabitants, with excellent illustrations and a key that shows how big each was in relation to man. Each chapter also devotes a two-page spread to one species, giving a more in-depth look at, say, a tyrannosaur. Another nice feature is a list of books for further reading included at the end.

* Two good paperbacks should be of interest to fossil hunters: "Dinosaurs Walked Here (and Other Stories Fossils Tell)" by Patricia Lauber (Aladdin, $5.95, ages 7-10) and "Where to Find Dinosaurs Today" by Daniel and Susan Cohen (Puffin, $6.99, all ages).

The former uses photographs and artist's renditions to illustrate a fascinating array of fossil finds and what the animals who belonged to the bones might have looked like. We see dinosaur footprints along the shore of a 150 million-year-old lake in western Oklahoma (a reference to brontosaurs, however, is dated) and birdlike tracks that show how herds of plant-eating dinosaurs roamed along a river bed in British Columbia.

"Where to Find Dinosaurs Today" can help you plan the perfect vacation for a paleontologist-in-training; it packs of a lot of information into 209 pages. Billed as "a state-by-state guide to scientific models and Dinosaurabilia," it lists scores of places to go, complete with addresses, phone numbers, hours and admission costs.

There is only one Maryland entry, but it's one of the bigger ones: the Calvert Marine Museum in Southern Maryland. In addition to the serious stuff, the book includes places such as Dinosaur Land near Front Royal, Va.: "Don't expect scientific accuracy in these models, which range from a 20-foot tyrannosaur to a mammoth to King Kong. But you can stretch your legs, grab a snack, take some pretty funny pictures, and experience a piece of real Americana."

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