Thursday, June 04, 2009

Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals

When I was a kid, only one thing rivaled my love of monsters, and that was dinosaurs. I couldn't get enough of them. The desire for the Marx dinosaur playset, and Santa actually delivering it, is my most vivid Christams memory. "Turok: Son of Stone" about a pair of Native Americans trapped in a prehistoric world wasmy favorite comic book.

I also had plenty of books about dinosaurs. These I devoured, memorizing what are now outdated, erroneous facts about them as well as their long names and distinguishing characteristics. I know I was not alone. This was a common practice among kids for many generations, sadly now replaced by memorization of minutia involving Pokemon characters. I still have many of the books from this period of my life, and have a fondness for them. One book, above all others, rose to being my favorite. This book was "Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals" by Darlene Geis with illustrations by R.F. Peterson.

Long before I owned it, I coveted it. On visits to a local bookshop, I'd look at it and always ask for it. At some point the answer was that I could have it when I learned to tie my shoes. This was the one developmental area that confounded me to tears. I just couldn't get it. I even had a record that was supposed to help me learn. The record came in a vinyl case that opened to reveal a cartoon rabbit with felt fur and vinyl boots with actual laces, which you were supposed to practice tying as you listened to the instructions on the record. Crossing the laces and making the "x" ? No problem. Making one bunny ear, then running the bunny around the tree and back into the rabbit hole so you finished with a rabbit with both ears? No matter how hard I tried or how much I practiced. I couldn't do it. I actually remember the moment I finally learned to tie my shoes. It was on the last day of first grade. Walking down the hallway to the buses for dismissal, I noticed my shoe was untied. No teachers were around to help me. With panic that I'd miss my bus and be trapped in school for the summer, I simply knelt down and tied it on the first try. I got that book that very afternoon, and best of all, with school out had all summer to pore through it. I still have it.

Author, Darlene Geis, also wrote another favorite of mine, "The How and Why Book of Dinosaurs" The How and Why series was one of my favorites, and I still love to look through them for their illustrations. She wrote many other children's books as well as recipe books. She eventually went to work for Harry N. Abrams as an editor and writer where she edited a number of Disney titles including the popular anthology "Walt Disney's Treasury of Children's Classics." She also wrote "The Joys of Wine" and an encyclopedia of quilts. She dies in March, 1999 at the age of 81 in a fire in her Manhattan home.

As for illustrator R. F. Peterson, I could find no information.

"Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals" took on further significance for me not too much longer after I acquired it. It was the first thing I owned which I ever saw in a movie. The movie was "King Kong vs Godzilla." This was the American version of it, the only version I'd know until adulthood.

When "King Kong vs Godzilla" was acquired for American audiences it was heavily reedited. All character development was cut. "Humor" was added, scenes were reordered, the score was replaced, mostly with music from "the Creature from the Black Lagoon," and following the formula used when "Gojira" became "Godzilla, King of the Monsters" starring Raymond Burr, new footage of reporters was added to comment of what was happening in the story. While the Raymond Burr footage was cleverly integrated and served a purpose in tying together reordered and trimmed scenes, the news reporter footage added to "King Kong vs Godzilla" merely seemed to bring the movie to a halt whenever it began to get interesting.

A reporter operating from the United Nations news center would, often erroneously, comment on the scenes we just watched. In one of these cutaway scenes he introduces us to Dr. Arnold Johnson, curator of the New York Museum of Natural History and an esteemed authority on prehistoric animals. To show his authority, he explains his theories on Godzilla using a children's book. This one:

This is laughably absurd to an adult, but less so than the theories he suggests. It would be like seeing an entomologist on CNN commenting on a devastating invasion of gypsy moth caterpillars by holding up a copy of Eric Carle's "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" (well, not so bad since "Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals" is informative, educational, and non-fiction; a science book for kids, but you get the idea).

As a kid however, I was beside myself with excitement seeing a book I owned in a movie with King Kong AND Godzilla in it no less.

One of Dr. Arnold Johnson's speculations was that Godzilla was a cross between a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a Stegosaurus. Forget any issues with interbreeding, but not only does this authority combine two animals that did not exist at the same time, but he pointed to the Allosaurus on the cover to represent the Tyrannosaurus. Even I caught this at a young age, making this most likely my earliest encounter with bad science, or sloppy research in a movie, and proving that adults are not infallible.


Agent Spectre said...

I can not believe how much nostalgia you have just evoked with this post. I actually own the first two books you mention from my own childhood, and had to go and dig them up after I saw this. I feel like such a nerd... I just realized how many old Dinosaur, let alone general animal/zoology, books I owned as a kid. (I always greatly appreciated the Giant Golden Book of Dinosaurs as well)

The Dimetrodon from "Dinosaurs and other Prehistoric Animals" was just about one of my favorite illustrations.

Thank you so much for the wonderful post full of good old times, and some great humor. =D

John Rozum said...

The Giant Golden Book of Dinosaurs was one of my other favorites, too. I still haven't turned that one up. It's got to be at my parents house somewhere.

The Dimetrodon was one of my favorite illustrations as well. I think its that turn of the head. I still think of them as being purple because of that illustration.

Robert Pope said...

Good grief. I just showed my copy of "Dinos and other Prehistoric Animals" to my nephew (nearly 5) and he had this hilarious "what were you people smoking" look on his face as he thumbed through it...

John Rozum said...

Yeah, I get paleontological lectures from my kids whenever they watch something like "Fantasia," "Dinosaurus," or "One Million BC" (though my son thought the Harryhausen dinosaurs were realistic. To which I replied "There were Dinosaurs in this movie?").

Now of course, the fossil bed to screen transition is so fast that some of the "Jurassic Park" dinosaurs had barely been discovered before they went stomping around on screen.

Martin Arlt said...

My grade school library had "Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals," and I checked it out constantly. But even as a child, I couldn't help wondering why those grown ups were flipping through a children's book. I fine trip down memory lane...

John Rozum said...

Thanks, Martin. Good to hear from you. How are things?

bio-forger said...

Yes, my elementary school library also had this book, I used to flip through it hoping to see Godzilla( this was during G's 80s 'exodus', before video was widely available). I felt so cheated, but the book itself was pretty cool.