*The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, written by Barbara Kerley and illustrated by Brian Selznick. Scholastic Press, 2001. 48 pps. Recommended for ages 7-up.
When I first came across this book, it was long before Hugo Cabret and Mr. Selznick’s rise into the highest stratosphere of children’s publishing. As a good editor-wanna-be, I often checked award winners out from the library to study what made a winner, and since his collaboration here with Barbara Kerley had just won him a Caldecott Honor, I included it in my stacks. And it stood out, even among the best.
The illustrations of this book were very good. Top-notch, to be sure. Not as good as some of his books to come, but they conveyed a way of thinking about his subjects that was highly original. To be a great illustrator, you must have the rare ability to go beyond correct form and pleasing colors into something else. Something a lot like magic. In the interview of Brian we posted yesterday, he mentioned that he had a teacher in college who taught him to pay attention to how things feel–both in a tactile sense and in an emotional one. I think that’s part of what sets him apart; his ability to capture feelings instead of just objects, light, and movement.
Kerley’s was a good story. But the extra layer of complexity Selznick chose in this case was to illustrate Waterhouse Hawkins as a kind of 19th century magician or even ring-master. Hawkins appears on stage in his suit, standing in the spotlight, beckoning readers to slip with him under the curtain and gaze upon his creations. I appreciated the illustrator’s note on the back flap, in which Selznick said something to the effect that he hoped his illustrations would work a bit like Waterhouse’s own art–awakening wonder and awe. Selznick apparently connected with Hawkins’ own calling–that of bringing obscure historical figures to life for a new audience.
But more remarkable, perhaps, than either of these is the fact that his book shows something usually off-limits in children’s books. It presents science–or at least the public impression of science–as a product of creativity as well as brute facts. The dinosaurs that Hawkins created largely don’t exist. They would be considered grossly inaccurate by today’s standards. But in his defense, paleontology was a relatively new field of study at that time, and he had very little evidence to draw from. We are told that the primary scientist who helped him once projected an entire bird from one bone. In the case of animals who may have lived thousands, perhaps millions of years before, it’s no wonder his creations turned out to be more fantastical than factual.
And that’s another reason why, as a Christian, I have a special place in my heart for this book. We live in a schizophrenic world when it comes to Truth. We are told in university biology classes that macro evolution and global warming are not theories, but absolute, objective facts–facts that have nothing whatsoever to do with presuppositions of philosophical naturalism or scientific materialism or any other -ism. They just are, and Descartes’ thinking man has carved them in stone for us. But then in a building just across the same college campus, students are told in English literature classes that we are so trapped within our own prejudices and culture so that we can’t even know if there is such a thing as Truth. So, which is it?
For me, The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins offers a check against both of these houses. Science is, at its best, an expression of the Christian worldview in which true knowledge is possible, but difficult. It combines both a concern for “the facts” and a brilliant imagination. If you’re looking for a book that will both get kids’ excited about science AND help them think through the limits of what it can discover, I can’t think of a better book than The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins. And if you’re looking for a Christmas gift for a nerdy non-Christian family, same thing goes.