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As many of you probably know from reading various incarnations of my ABOUT ME on here and also from a few comments in my own reviews, we are a home educating family. I bring this up as its quite relevant to this review, as it underscores just why we are so picky about the books we choose for our children. Many of the books we choose must not only entertain, so that they enjoy the reading, but also inform, so that they are picking up facts alongside. This is occasionally simple, but other times less so. One particularly tricky area is finding biographies for younger children. Luckily, this is a niche that is rapidly being filled, with many excellent picture book biographies springing up about famous artists such as Picasso and Da Vinci, as well as perhaps less well known, but equally as important, figures such as Mary Anning.
Who??? Well, you may well ask, I certainly did when this book title came up as recommended. This is one of those occasions when gaps in my own education appeared and I had it filled along with that of my children. Well, none of us knows EVERYTHING! Mary Anning was born in Lyme Regis in 1799. Her father Richard was a carpenter and a hobbyist fossil hunter. Mary loved to go fossil hunting with her father, and when she was but 11 years old, happened to notice an oddity along the ground that she dusted carefully off. This piece turned out to be a skull, and excavation proved it to be a nearly complete Ichthyosaurus. Now, her fossil hunting was not for scientific curiosity alone, it was to sell to collectors as income, as tourists flocked to the region for its "curiosities". So, as they were poor, and her father had died at that point,Mary went on to hone her observation skills in order to discover other valuable fossils. It was to pay off as she then went on to discover the first complete Plesiosaurus. She drew the attention of reputable scientists as well as wealthy tourists, who all flocked to her shop to see what her latest great discovery was. The tongue twister "she sells seashells by the seashore" is thought to have originated as an homage to her, in fact.
Now, this may seem like a lot of information for a picture book, but it is actually a story well told on a level that children can understand. The book uses language simple enough that your 4-6 year old will easily understand and enjoy the story about the the young dinosaur hunter who went on to influence the scientific world, even today, while the more confident reader will be able to sit and read this by himself for enjoyment. Likewise, being a picture book, rather than a short chapter book with pen and ink drawings, the vivid illustrations capture the imagination and make the words come alive. The simple palette of blues, greens and browns help add to the sense of poverty that Mary and her family experienced, as well as convey the notion of digging in the dirt. The book also opens up a wonderful opportunity to explain what England was like during the Jurassic period, and how Lyme Regis was in fact a sea bed, and so on, so that the child can imagine the giant plesiosaur swimming along where now there are beaches and cliffs and houses and shops, only to become frozen in time, ready for someone to come along, and find this marvelous treasure.
It's also inspiring, as it goes on to show that anyone can educate themselves and make important contributions to science. Hobbyists often make the discoveries accidentally that scientists have analysed, and occasionally over analysed. It also provides a chance to point out that had Mary lived today, being poor would not have barred her from being able to go to school, and perhaps to have become a paleontologist who could travel the world, looking for fossils and finding out exciting new things about dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. By presenting the girl Mary, and making her life story so accessible to children, it opens up a world of new possibilities about "when I grow up, I want to be...." and ignites new interest in science.
Indeed, it ignited such interest from my 5 year old son, and his not quite seven year old sister, that the plastic dinosaurs emerged from the murky depths of the toy boxes, and new ones happily pounced upon at the shops. Requests for colouring pages about dinosaurs abounded to the detriment of my printer ink (thank heavens we now have a CSS system!), as well as a thirst for dino facts and information on the QT extinctions .I doubt there are many small children who can now confidently tell you all about the great QT nor the dinosaurs of Mexico as opposed to the UK, and so on, but mine can, and its thanks to a little picture book that inspired them. Any book that can grab the attention of a child in such a manner and get them searching out knowledge is worth its weight in gold.
Luckily, its not as costly as all that however, being able to be found on Amazon for the not quite so princely sum of £3.95 new, or from 40 pence plus shipping via the Marketplace for the soft cover, and from £2.27 from the Marketplace for the hardcover. It's money well spent and after having enjoyed this, we shall be looking out for more.