My First Favourite Book

I'm often asked what my favourite book was when I was a child,and I usually say The Lord of the Rings or The Eagle of the Ninth or something. But the first book I can remember really loving was this:

My mum and dad gave it to me as either a Christmas or a birthday present, when I was about five. It's a bit too advanced for a five year old, but I was mad on dinosaurs at the time, and this was the only dinosaur book they could find. I didn't mind, because they read it to me until I was old enough to read it to myself.

The illustrations of lumbering, earth-coloured dinosaurs are very different from the lively, highly-coloured beasts that fill dinosaur books today and, to be honest, some of them are quite crude, but I wasn't bothered at the time; I remember being amazed at how realistic the pair on the cover were, and also the allosaurus on the title page - I thought they looked like photographs. (Actually the cover may be a photograph of a museum exhibit, it's hard to tell. The interior illustrations are by a U.S. illustrator called Sol Kirby). I spent a lot of time drawing these dinosaurs, and some of the pages still show the scars where I pressed a bit too hard when I was tracing them.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that you should all rush out and buy this; much of the information in it is long out-of-date. I found a blog which tears it to bits, pointing out all the errors and misconceptions; to a reader in 2014 these dinosaurs are as quaint as the ones at the Crystal Palace. But it did bring their world vividly to life for me as a child. It's written as a jaunty travelogue, with lots of background detail, much of it told in the present tense.

'Now let us imagine we are in a tropical jungle 219 million years ago. It is the dawn of a new day. We are wandering through the undergrowth and presently we come to a clearing. He we see the small dinosaur, COELOPHYSIS (seel-O-fiss-iss), which was one of the carnivorous saurischians of the Triassic period.' 

I remember it feeling almost as if I were there. It was quite gory, too...

'Dimetrodon slashes and tears at Eryops's exposed neck; the amphibian turns and tries to escape into the water and safety. Dimetrodon bites deeply into her neck. In return, Eryops tries to bite off her assailants's leg,but succeeds only in inflicting a small, superficail wound. Dimetrodon now attacks Eryops's body with his sharp teeth, and kills her. Then he begins his meal.'

So I suppose this was the first book I encountered which built a detailed imaginary world: maybe it was quite influential.

It also expanded my vocabulary. At some point in the early '70s I fell on my sister's dolls' pram and cut my mouth quite badly; on the way to hospital the ambulance man said, 'I think you'll survive', and the word instantly called up an image of page 33 (below)...

'The next dinosaur we meet is an Ornithischian about thirty feet long, called Camptosaurus (CAMP-to-sawr-us) which lived about 140 million years ago, during the Jurassic period, and survived through many upheavals and changes in dinosaur fortunes.' I knew I'd be OK.

When bookish people talk about how much they love books, they often just mean fiction, but a non-fiction book can be just as inspiring, and just as page-turning, as a good novel. And forty-something years later, I still love dinosaurs.


Cary Watson said...

It's funny how intensely kids can be influenced by relatively simple artwork. When I was seven or eight I was besotted with the Classics Illustrated comic of The Iliad. When one copy would wear out I'd buy another. Decades later I came across it and couldn't believe how crude the drawings were. On the other hand, the artwork for Classics Illustrated's The War of the Worlds has held up very well. "The Coming of the Armoured Dinosaurs" should be the title of a chapter or even a novel, you choose the genre.

Philip Reeve said...

I think children bring a lot of their own imaginations when they look at pictures - the same imaginations which can make toys seem completely real, and turn cardboard boxes into spaceships.We lose that later, and need better artwork! You're right about 'Coming of the Armoured Dinosaurs'- definitely a chapter title,at least.

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