Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins

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." "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.


  1. You make mme want to run out and read this right away. It sounds wonderful! Then you also make me want to run out and get all the books Selznick has illustrated. I think he only does fantastic books. I started reading the Doll People books simply because of his illustrations and ended up loving the story too!

  2. Oh, wow, those illustrations are gorgeous, and the book sounds delightful! I guess if I'd thought about it I would have realized that we didn't always know what dinosaurs looked like - but I never did. Definitely will be getting this one!

  3. Hi Darla,

    Thanks so much for the kind words about the book.

    Readers of your blog may be interested to know that I have extension activities (for teachers, homeschoolers, and dinosaur lovers!) posted on my web page:


    Barbara Kerley

  4. Nicola - This one is definitely a winner. I ended up buying a copy after I realized we were checking it out every other time we went to the library. The Doll People are on my list of books to read to the kids some time soon. Glad to hear you like them!

    Jenny - You know, it never occurred to me either about not knowing what dinosaurs looked like - I always just took that for granted! Hope you enjoy this as much as we do.

    Barbara - Thanks for stopping by! I will come by your site to check out all your fun and interesting offerings.

  5. What an interesting-sounding book! It's sometimes very easy to forget how much we have learned over the years until we read something like this. It's amazing to me to take a walk in another era's shoes. Beautiful illustrations too :)

  6. Ladytink - "It's amazing to me to take a walk in another era's shoes" - You put it perfectly! :-)

  7. I remember reading about this guy and these creations on Brian Sibley's website awhile back. Fascinating stuff.

  8. Carl - it is fascinating, isn't it? I can't believe I missed seeing these when I was in London.

  9. It is too bad you didn't know about this when you were there...although I imagine that if I went to London there are so many off the beaten path places that I would want to see that it would take a year to get to all of them!!!

  10. Carl - isn't that the truth! I love going to London. Next time I'll take the kids to see them. :-)

  11. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention. I bet my daughter would love this one. She's always been interested in dinosaurs and wants to be a paleontologist (at least right now...LOL).

    Diary of an Eccentric

  12. Anna - Oh, please let me know what she thinks of it! I hope she likes it. :-)


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