With their rough, reptilian skins, enormous gleaming eyes and often, their alarming size and speed, dinosaurs have always had a knack for commanding attention. Ditto for their imaginary cousins, the dragons, and for many of the same reasons. While none of us has ever seen a living specimen of either "species," dragons have long invaded the imaginations of poets, artists and writers, while dinosaurs similarly have made many young scientists want to devote their professional lives to paleontology.
The "terrible lizards" and their distant fire-breathing kin are the subject of two new kids' books, both out this month and both featuring local talent. Dinosaur Mummies, by Kelly Milner Halls, is a fascinating look at how fossilized soft-tissue impressions can tell us just as much about dinosaurs as the more common skeletal remains. Nine Dragons, illustrated by Kristen Seaton, is a contemporary fable based on Asian folklore and myth.
"I'm the most prolific unknown writer you'll ever meet," laughs Halls. And it's true, with more than a thousand articles under her belt, not to mention 10 books in print, Halls is still not quite a household name. But with the publication of Dinosaur Mummies (and Albino Animals, due out in May) that all might change for the Spokane native and mother of two. She got the idea for Dinosaur Mummies while working on a freelance article, and initially had planned to write the story of "Leonardo," a rare, juvenile Hadrosaur who most likely died in a flood and whose remains included more than 70% of its soft tissue - including his muscles, skin, footpads, tongue and even the contents of his stomach.
"What was so amazing about Leonardo is that the paleontologists could identify the individual pollens in a dinosaur's stomach and from that, describe an entire landscape," says Halls.
Just as Halls was completing that book, she got word from her publisher that a "large, unnamed entertainment conglomerate" was buying the rights to the story and that she would have to switch gears. Switch she did, and Dinosaur Mummies became the story of dinosaur records left all over the globe - from Titanosaur embryos in Argentina to the beautiful feathered Sinosauropteryx of China.
While the book is one of the most attractive yet to grace the groaning bookshelves of bookstore and library dinosaur collections, the real draw here is Halls's engaging and lively text. With sidebars on a female paleontologist who specializes in coprolites (that's fossilized poop to you and me) and descriptions of how dinosaur flesh becomes mummified, Halls speaks "kid" fluently.
Kristen Seaton came to illustration accidentally, but now she can't imagine doing anything else. The 22-year-old Coeur d'Alene native studied costume design at the North Carolina School of the Arts but an e-mail correspondence with one of her mother's friends, George Herman, turned into a satisfying literary collaboration.
"He pitched me the project and I was immediately taken by it," she says. She started doing the research while still in school and found some wonderful dragon imagery in ancient sculpture, museum collections, and Asian art. Her pen and ink drawings, many further augmented by watercolor, nicely complement Herman's story of two tribes separated by their fear of the mountain range between them and the nine dragons that live there.
Seaton has several illustration projects in the works, including a dramatic version of Nine Dragons that she's currently directing at Lake City High School in Coeur d'Alene. In the meantime, however, why not let the giant creatures with the rough skins - either real or imaginary - beguile you with their charms this December?