________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 4. . . .September 25, 2009


What Came First?

Sandro Natalini.
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2009.
32 pp., hardcover, $17.99.
ISBN 978-0-88776-910-8.

Subject Heading:
Evolution (Biology)-Juvenile literature.

Grades 4-6 / Ages 9-11.

Review by Gillian Richardson.

** /4

Reviewed from f&g’s.



The Mesozoic Era 248-65 million years ago

In this era, thick and luxuriant vegetation began to cover the dry land. Some creatures that could live on land and in water began to lose their ability to survive in water. You would have recognized turtles, crocodiles and lizards But other creatures were like nothing alive today. Some were as small as a chicken; others were the size of a train. We call the meat eaters carnivores and the plant eaters herbivores, and we call the ones that ate both meat and plants omnivores.

This was the era of the (non-avian) dinosaurs. They first appeared about 230 million years ago. Birds, then true mammals appeared about 170 million years ago. Flowering plants appeared about 130 million years ago.

The story of evolution is both complex and full of unanswered questions. This picture book attempts to introduce young readers to some scientific details that may explain the mystery, using the query ‘‘What came first……the chicken or the egg?’’ as a starting point. The Big Bang is described as well as various eras in prehistory, continental drift, evolutionary theories and processes, and extinction. It’s a lot to cover in a 32 page book, so it is by necessity quite sketchy.

internal art      General factual statements (‘…complex chemicals formed and collected in the oceans…’) are mixed with cartoon images, e.g. droplet-shaped figures representing basic gases commenting on the wet weather. The presentation style varies from simple, minimal text using mixed font sizes and spiral shapes, to detailed descriptions, as excerpted above.

     The author/illustrator uses his graphic design experience to show colourful visual representations of evolutionary changes. A fold-out section sketches the timeline of life as it moved from sea to land, in illustration only. The layout of this part of the book may frustrate young readers since the explanations for it are grouped on a double-page spread a couple of pages later in four columns (Paleozoic Era to Quaternary Period) without any illustration. After reading a description of the barylambda (which, in context, might be seen as an example about birds), the reader must search back through the unlabeled fold-out pages to see what it looked like. The only creature that matches the details (short head, tail like a kangaroo……useful for leaning on while munching leaves) is pictured with mammals. Is this the barylambda?

     Positioning of other illustration and text in this middle section is not well thought-out. The paragraph about ocean life forms could have been placed next to the first fold-out painting that supports it. Instead, details about amoeba and paramecium intervene on that page. Another page showing sea life is isolated, following the last fold-out page that shows mammoths. It seems to be out of sequence.

     The book may arouse preliminary interest in scientific investigations into evolutionary processes. Key figures, such as Sir Richard Owen, paleontologist, and Charles Darwin, are mentioned. The final page includes token reference to climate change and pollution with the dour warning that “it is up to us to maintain the environment……” While this may inspire discussion, it also suggests this book should be read with an adult who could interpret some of the material. I wonder if many youngsters would choose this one on their own.


Gillian Richardson is a freelance writer living in BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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