Book Review: Dinosaur Lady: The Daring Discoveries of Mary Anning, the First Paleontologist

Dinosaur Lady: The Daring Discoveries of Mary Anning, The First Paleontologist. by Linda Skeers with pictures by Marta Alvarez Miguens. Sourcebooks. 2020. 

Review by Marion Reynolds

Notes from the Editor

In the early 1800’s, as a teen and young woman, Mary Anning scratched about on an English shoreline, finding fossils dating back millions of years – and making sense of them.  Her work contributed significantly to the development of a scientific understanding of evolution. But as a woman and someone from a poor family, her contribution remained hidden for decades and has only recently been celebrated. Her story is one that needs to be told, especially to children growing up in this age when science, diversity, and inclusion must matter to all.  

Jill Esbaum, on Picture Book Builders website, captures the charm of Linda Skeers’ Dinosaur Lady. The Daring Discoveries of Mary Anning, the First Paleontologist:

What I love about this book: Linda took two of Mary Anning’s traits—determination and curiosity—and showed those on every page. That made me FEEL something for Mary. I wasinspired by her dauntless, lifelong dino-hunting (at a time before the word “dinosaur” even existed) andoutraged on her behalf at the way she was continually DISMISSED by male scientists of the time, especially since her “guesses” proved to be correct again and again. Plus, there’s dino poop.”

Esbaum continues her interview with the author by asking a question about researching Mary Anning’s story, a standard that nonfiction and biography writers should always address: “Was the research process fairly straightforward, or was it necessary to constantly sift facts from folklore?” Skeers’ solution to the dilemma of little verifiable information about Anning’s childhood was to focus on her discoveries and how her work mattered to the emerging field of paleontology. Annings’ reluctant would-be colleagues in the field of geology concluded that her “fish lizard” was millions of years old, thus challenging the belief that the earth was only six thousand years old.  They named the long since extinct species Ichthyosauraus, as the word dinosaur had yet to be coined. She went on to discover bezoars or corrolites (fossilized poop), the pterosaur (a creature with wings), and the Plesiosaurus (a long-necked aquatic creature), and that some ancient sea creatures squirted ink to avoid predators. 

Skeers steers completely clear of invented dialogue, avoiding the problem of fictionalizing her account of Annings’ life during the first half of the 19th century. In lieu of dialogue, the nicknames for the fossils she collected – “snake-stones” (ammonites), “devil toenails” (belemnites), and “angel wings” (Petracola pholadiformis) – offer the reader the context of Annings’ passion for collecting curiosities to sell to tourists and sophisticated science vocabulary.  

The book design is ideal for sharing with a class of young children. The text is lively and can easily be read aloud with expression and enthusiasm. “Boldly, Mary chipped away. . and uncovered ribs. Vertabrae. Flippers! Was it a crocodile? Fish? Lizard? No, Mary had discovered a creature never seen before! Was she scared? Nope. Not at all.” Illustrator Marta Álvarez Miguén’s full color digital illustrations could be easily seen in a circle gathering.

The all-important back matter includes an informative author’s note that fills in additional information about Anning’s work and achievements.  For example, Anning grew up and found her major discoveries in one of the premier locations for fossil hunting due to the eroding cliffs of the Lyme Regis coastal region of Great Britain,

The glossary titled “Bone Bits and Fossil Facts”, a timeline, and bibliographical resources, including vetted websites, validate the information and provide opportunities to continue learning about this woman scientist that the British Journal for the History of Science considers “the greatest fossilist the world ever knew.” 

Other biographies of Mary Anning and children’s nonfiction about paleontology

Rare Treasure. Mary Anning and Her Remarkable Discoveries. Don Brown. 1999. The illustrations are pen and ink with watercolor washes in appropriate coastal England colors, so the illustrations would be harder to see in a read aloud situation. The narrative is straightforward and clearly written. There is occasional dialogue that is not validated in a bibliography but may well be authentic. There is no back matter which was not as common 20 years ago. 

Gutsy Girls Go for Science. Paleontologists. (part of a series). Karen Bush Gibson with illustrations by Shululu. 2019. Mary Anning is the first featured scientist as she was the first paleontologist. The other paleontologists profiled are Mignon Talbot, Tilly Edinger, Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska, and Mary Leakey. The book design includes side bars with additional information of interest on most of the double spreads, terms defined on the same page as used in the text, relevant drawings and photographs, and activities for kids with an interest in trying their hands at such work. Fifteen pages are devoted to Anning’s story. She is referred to as Mary. The backmatter includes a glossary, index, bibliography, and websites. 

Mary Anning’s Curiosity. Monica Kulling. 2017. A fictionalized biography for 3rd through 5th grade readers. 104 pages, with an author’s note and additional information about Anning, her times and location, and the science of paleontology. Kulling is a well-respected Canadian author. There is plenty of dialogue along with the setting and the times woven into the story. 

Exploring Fossils. Paleontologists at Work! (part of the Earth Detectives series). Elsie Olson with a consulting reading specialist. 2018. For younger readers with high interest in the basics of fossils. The book design features large print with colorful photographs that augment the text. There are four pages on Mary Anning and her discoveris. The photographs show current scientists at work but not identified. The glossary is succinct. 24 pages.

Watch a short animated video about Mary Anning here

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