Monday, August 24, 2015

Special Non-Fiction Monday: Blog Tour - The Early Cretaceous

The Early Cretaceous: notes drawings, and observations from prehistory by Juan Carlos Alonso & Gregory S. Paul. Ancient Earth Journal series. 112 p. Walter Foster Jr./ Quarto Publishing Group USA Inc., September 1, 2015. 9781633220331. (Finished copy courtesy of publisher.)

I am thrilled to participate in the blog tour for this special book. I had the opportunity to send questions to Mr. Alonso for a Q & A. My review follows.

What was the collaborative process between you and Gregory Paul? Both write/ illustrate? Meet in person? Online?
It was very smooth actually. Besides being a researcher and author, Gregory Paul is a very established and well-known illustrator, so when we first met over dinner, I showed him my initial sketches of the idea I had for this book. I was a little uneasy anticipating his response, but he seemed to like what he saw. Later when I approached him about working together, I proposed doing all the illustrations; he had no issue with it. He did however have a lot of input on everything from the overall proportions to the size of the toenails – I wouldn’t have had it any other way. He was very engaged in the project. One of the aspects of paleoart that really appeals to me is the artistic interpretation of these extinct animals. So much of the fossil record is absent, there’s always some speculation that goes into a life restoration. This is what makes paleoart so great: part science, part art.

With the exception of our first meeting, all our collaborations have been via email. Regarding the writing, I created the outline of how the book was going to be sectioned and wrote a draft for the introduction. Greg incorporated more information, some edits and a few times back and forth: together we built a picture of the Early Cretaceous.

How long did you two work on the book? You have a day job, running your own company, I believe, as well as other artistic interests, such as sculpting, when did you find the time to create this? 
Yeah, I’m a pretty busy guy, but I like it that way. Being a creative director is a full time job to say the least, and very deadline oriented, so things have to get done by a certain date come hell or high water. But, I feel like I do a good job in dividing my time between my interests. For instance, taking breaks when you can, it allows for quality time to focus on what’s at hand. But alas, I cannot do it all, so sculpting has taken a back seat for the time being. I also try to stay in shape going to the gym at least 4 days a week. This helps with the energy level and keeping up with my 7 year old daughter.

How long have you been drawing dinosaurs? What, if anything, sparked this interest? Do you spend a lot of time in museums studying bones?
I’ve been fascinated with dinosaurs since I was a child. So the real answer is, I’ve been drawing dinosaurs my whole life. It wasn’t until about 5 years ago, when my daughter was 2 years old, that I decided I was going to write and illustrate this book. Her childish sense of wonder inspired me to create the book I wanted as a child. At this time, I began to do the research and take up drawing dinosaurs much more seriously. My approach to the illustrations was to create more personal, intimate drawings as if from a first-person point of view. This is a good contrast to the trend right now in dinosaur books where the illustrations are digital or photo-real.

I love spending time in museums. I just got back from New York were I spent quite a bit of time at the American Museum of Natural History – it’s one of my favorite places. It’s one thing to see the dinosaur skeletons in books or in photos, but you never get the sense of scale unless you are standing alongside of one. But truth be told, the skeletons in the museums are a product of interpretation as much as the artwork that appears in books. Most people don’t realize that the majority of fossils are crushed under pressure and many are incomplete including the skulls. By using the scientific methods and some artistry the skeletal mounts are assembled. If you take a look at these mounts back 40 years ago, you would notice how the posture and general appearance has changed. Science itself evolves just as much as the dinosaurs did. It’s what keeps this field so interesting.

Why did you pick the Early Cretaceous period in particular?
The Early Cretaceous was a truly transitional stage in the evolution of wildlife. I have felt that it deserves more attention than it gets. For years little was known about the Early Cretaceous and it wasn’t until recently that a light has been shed on this period. Impeccably preserved fossil finds in China have painted a broad picture of the Earth during this time. The first true birds took to the air as the first ancestors of the Tyrannosaurs began evolving. Bizarre animals with large crest and elongated spines inhabited South America, whereas large theropod dinosaurs covered in feathers terrorized China. Evolutionarily speaking, it was a strange time.

By dedicating the book to half of a time period, more animals, seldom seen in other books, can be brought to light. Ultimately my goal was to create a snapshot of wildlife in this 38 million year window called the Early Cretaceous.

It looks like your book is a series starter. Do you know what other topics are planned? Will you be involved with any more? 
Yes and yes. I hope to do more in a series dissecting time periods and to give readers a better perspective on prehistoric wildlife and which animals coexisted with one another. Growing up I always thought that all these animals lived in the Mesozoic at the same time. But in reality, some species lived further apart from each other than humans did from the dinosaurs. For instance Tyrannosaurus rex lived 83 million years separated fromStegosaurus whereas we live 65 million years from Tyrannosaurus rex. It’s that kind of perspective that I want to explore.

I remember reading somewhere that before the advent of photography, most people drew and many kept nature journals. Nowadays, it is common to hear students claim that they can't draw. Is the idea behind the artist's notebook format meant to encourage young readers to think of themselves as artists? Frankly, even I was tempted to whip out some paper to try drawing some - particularly the 3/4 portrait of a juvenile Scipionyx on page 42. It really jumps off the page.
I have had several graphic designers that have worked for me and said the same thing, “but I can’t draw.” It’s epidemic. They don’t teach drawing or sketching at all in school and it’s an important tool, especially when it comes to graphic design. It’s a lost art I guess.

When it comes to children I strongly believe they are all born as artists. Self expression is coming out of them in every way possible: they draw when they see something that inspires them, they dance when they are moved by music and even act out their favorite scenes from their show when they find it funny. It’s all done without it being taught to them and it’s all very pure. It is this same type of inspiration I received from dinosaur books as a child. This is what fed my curiosity and imagination, desire to draw and my reasoning for wanting to share.

That Scipionyx is my wife’s favorite dinosaur in the book, I think it has to do with the eyes. It took several drawings to get that one right, so I’m glad you like it.

Review: All four of my sons went through a phase of dinosaur fascination but none as deeply or as long as #3. He would insist on learning the multisyllabic names of most of the dinosaurs in our many books. It was such a hoot to hear those names trip out of this little munchkin's mouth so adroitly. Once a month the boys would trek into the city early on a Sunday morning to spend hours at the American Museum of Natural History with their dad for boy time, although, I occasionally got to go. Plenty of time was spent in the Hall of Dinosaurs, but they loved the entire place, including the planetarium. What I loved about those many trips, besides the bonding with papa, was the sense of wonder that all the exhibits inspired. They all loved those trips. The familiarity never seemed to bore them. They seemed to find something new to notice every time. Isn't that what we want as parents and teachers?

I recalled those times as soon as I opened the mailer containing this book. As I held the book in my hands, I thought that my three-year-old son would've loved this and kind of wished for a young dino-maniac to share it with. The book is quite lovely.

The 9 x 12 trim size is not what I'd call oversized but the book has heft. One may mistakenly believe that the fearsome carnivorous dinosaur that seems to leap off the cover is a T-Rex but one immediately discovers that this prehistoric terror is a Carcharodotosauridae. This larger than life impression is helped by the fact that the illustration is slightly raised. The thick pages give the feel of a textured artist's notebook/ journal, which after a forward written by two experts in paleontology and an introduction that provides an overview of the Early Cretaceous period, is basically what the book is - artistic renderings. And beautiful renderings at that. I could very easily envision a young reader copying the art in his or her own art notebook. Indeed, I was tempted to try my hand as well.

The Theropauds, the Sauropods, the Ornithischians, the Pterosaurs and the first birds are covered in five chapters, followed by a pronunciation key. Each chapter provides an explanation of the characteristics of the dinosaur group as a whole including a scale drawing of all the dinosaurs in the group compared to each other an a six-foot human. The pages that illustrate each dinosaur include information about where the dinosaur lived, the family it belongs to, its length, height and weight and temperament. There are studies of a variety of interesting anatomical features, all labeled of each dinosaur. 

I am writing this review while on vacation and do not have access to a scanner to show an example of the detail of these illustrations but luckily, there's a trailer available that will give you a glimpse. 

My only quibble is the lack of sources and suggestions for further reading. As a former nurse, I also wondered about the choice of blue to illustrate the very long aorta of the sauropod (p. 54). It is my understanding that arteries are illustrated in red, with the exception of the pulmonary artery. Again, a quibble because the point is that this particular vessel was extremely long. 

This book would be a unique addition to the 567.9 collection. I will be on the lookout for additions to the series.

Please check out the book's page on Quarto's website, Quarto Knows to follow the blog tour and enter a giveaway. The next stop will be tomorrow at Curling Up with a Good Book.  Many thanks to Michelle and Quarto Publishing for sharing Early Cretaceous with me.

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