It may be difficult to imagine today, but not too long ago most people had absolutely no idea what dinosaurs looked like. When the first dinosaur fossils were found in England, scientists turned to an artist named Waterhouse Hawkins, a man who was particularly talented at sculpting animals, to make sculptures of the creatures based on the few fossil fragments they had unearthed. Unlike today, they had no complete skeletons, and Waterhouse had to work from bits and pieces with the insight of a paleontologist to guide him, compare them to the skeletons of existing animals, and use his imagination to do the rest.
This richly illustrated biography of Waterhouse Hawkins is a fascinating look into the life and work of this artist, as well as a glimpse into a time in which details of prehistoric life on our planet were barely known by the average person. Waterhouse was a sort of ambassador for the dinosaurs, lecturing and showing his works, allowing people to see how these ancient creatures might have looked when they walked the earth so very long ago.
My favorite scene in the book is when Waterhouse is about to unveil his work to the most critical audience of all: the leading scientists of England. Waterhouse decided to present his work with flair: he designed and illustrated the invitations himself, writing the words on the wing of a pterodactyl. Here is a photo of one of the original invitations (from Cabinet magazine):
When the scientists arrived for their elegant, catered dinner, they found themselves seated at a table inside the model of the iguanodon! Illustrator Brian Selznick (author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, one of my favorite books) based most of his illustrations on the original sketches of Waterhouse Hawkins as well as other images he found in his research. He transformed the above invitation into a lovely bookplate for the book itself. Below is an engraving from the London Illustrated News (from Cabinet magazine) of the dinner party.
Waterhouse Hawkins is a fascinating man and a sympathetic character, as we see him struggle against adversity and refuse to give up. Selznick's vivid illustrations evoke the historical time and the events with bold, engaging images, and Barbara Kerley's text is straightforward, never stuffy or didactic, with vivid descriptions and a keen focus on the key events that is sure to maintain the reader's interest. There are fascinating notes from both the author and the illustrator at the end of the book, and while the print is a bit too small not to be off-putting to younger readers, the contents are fascinating, detailing the background of the creation of the book, including entertaining personal anecdotes about their experiences. This wonderful book is sure to appeal to dinosaur lovers of all ages, as well as to those who are fascinated by history and artists, and the contributions of a truly amazing man.
The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins by Barbara Kerley; illustrated by Brian Selznick (Scholastic Press, 2001)
Also reviewed at:
Biography Break: "The truth is stranger than fiction in this fabulous picture-book biography, paying homage to the life of a man who brought imagination to life and art and science together."
InfoDad.com: "A remarkable book about a remarkable man, The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins is an exciting intellectual adventure that takes young readers back to a time before everyone was familiar with dinosaurs’ appearance..."
Below is one of Waterhouse Hawkins' dinosaurs, which can still be seen today in the gardens of the gardens of the Crystal Palace in London.
Click here for more photos of the dinosaurs. It's amazing to imagine how awestruck people must have been by their size and appearance when they were first shown to the public.
Here is an interview with Barbara Kerley at Becky's Book Reviews.