Paleontology for kids:

Reviews of the best books and DVDs

© 2009 - 2013 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Never before have there been so many educational resources about paleontology for kids. But finding the best resources is a challenge.

Too often, children’s books ignore the key concepts that make paleontology interesting e.g., (paleoecology, parallel evolution, natural selection) or else they present the material at a level that is too advanced for the targeted age group.

For an outline of how I think paleontology should be presented to kids, click here.

Another problem is that books seem to go immediately out of print. I’ve found a number of excellent books that I’d like to promote, but they will be very difficult to find.

One example is a book with the unlikely title, Reader’s Digest Pathfinders Dinosaurs.

Who would expect Reader’s Digest to publish an outstanding children’s science book? But they did.

Written by paleontologist Paul M. A. Willis, the book is a fun, stimulating, concept-driven guide to all sorts of dinosaur topics, ranging from parental care to carnivory to camouflage to dinosaur metabolisms. It presents kids with the scientific evidence, stimulates critical thinking, and even includes cool activities.

The 64-page picture book meets or exceeds every criterion on my wishlist. How often does a working paleontologist write an extremely accessible, educational book for kids? But as I write this, the only way to get a copy is to find one in the used market. Snap this up if you can.

So here are my personal recommendations of books and videos in print, based on the criteria I stipulate here.

Cartoon overviews of the history of life on earth

For an introduction to vertebrate life before and after the emergence of dinosaurs, I recommend three books by cartoonist/writer Hannah Bonner:

When Bugs Were Big, Plants Were Strange, and Tetrapods Stalked the Earth: A Cartoon Prehistory of Life before Dinosaurs

When Fish Got Feet, Sharks Got Teeth, and Bugs Began to Swarm: A Cartoon Prehistory of Life Long Before Dinosaurs.

When Dinos Dawned, Mammals Got Munched, and Pterosaurs Took Flight: A Cartoon PreHistory of Life in the Triassic.

As the titles suggest, Bonner presents her material in the form of comic books. I think the comic book format can be an extremely efficient way to teach—-particularly when it comes to historical subject matter (like earth history).

Bonner’s work--especially her Bugs book--is fun to read and reminds me of Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe.

The publisher recommends these books for kids aged 9-12, but I suspect many motivated, younger kids will enjoy the books, too. The books can also serve as primers for college students.

Dinosaur guides Robert T. Bakker, Dougal Dixon, and Don Lessem

If you've watched dinosaur documentaries on TV, you are likely familiar with the sight of Dr. Bob Bakker in his worn-out straw hat.

Happily, this colorful and entertaining paleontologist has written several books for kids, including Dactyls! Dragons of the Air (Step into Reading)(2005) and Raptor Pack (Step into Reading) (2003).

Neither of these are general guidebooks, and one isn't even about dinosaurs, but pterosaurs. But they are inspiring reads for students in the early grades of elementary school. I'm especially fond of the raptor book, which begins with a reconstruction of a "day in the life" and goes on to explain how the fossil evidence supports this reconstruction.

Dougal Dixon has published a number of books about dinosaurs. One of my favorites is Amazing Dinosaurs, (2007) an excellent, intellectual guide to dinosaurs for primary school kids. But it has gone out of print. Dixon's The Ultimate Guide to Dinosaurs is easier to find.

Like Dixon, Don Lessem has many books about dinosaurs for kids. I like Lessem for several reasons. His writing is clear and succinct. He puts animals in ecological context. He discusses traits in terms of their adaptive function. And he explains what evidence paleontologists use to reach their conclusions. Unfortunately, many of his books are out of print.

But some books are available. I'm not sure if National Geographic Kids Ultimate Dinopedia: The Most Complete Dinosaur Reference Ever is complete as it claims to be, but it is beautifully illustrated and up-to-date.

In addition, the 32-page picture books in his “Meet the Dinosaurs” series, like The Fastest Dinosaurs (Meet the Dinosaurs) can still be purchased through amazon for the Kindle. They are aimed at readers in the early primary school grades. They are consistently exciting and well-illustrated.

Mesozoic sea reptiles

Elsewhere I recommend several resources about prehistoric sea monsters, including Sneed B. Collard’s excellent book Reign of the Sea Dragons.

Sabertooth--Highly recommended for kids 4 to 8

Sabertooth by Patrick O’Brien (Henry Holt and company 2008) might be the best picture book in print about paleontology for young children.

For years I’ve looked in vain for book that presents serious evolutionary and ecological concepts at a level appropriate for the precocious preschooler. Most of the books in print today suffer from one of the flaws mentioned above--such as being off-topic, inaccurate, too complex, or narrowly concerned with (dull) statistics.

Then Sabertooth came out, and I was impressed. Author/illustrator O’Brien meets all my criteria. This is a great book. To read my full review, click on this link to Amazon's listing of Sabertooth.


Nigel Marven DVDs

The charismatic naturalist and TV host Nigel Marven has starred in several paleontological wildlife “documentaries,” series in which Marven travels through time and meets a variety of prehistoric creatures.

The special effects are good, and Marven, who usually hosts “real” wildlife shows, is a surprisingly convincing actor.

I highly recommend Chased by Dinosaurs and Chased by Sea Monsters, two series you can find bundled together on a 150-minute DVD released in 2004.

I also recommend the more recent series Prehistoric Park , which is available in its entirety in a 2-DVD package that is 288 minutes long.

I like Prehistoric Park a bit less than I like the earlier Chased by Dinosaurs series. Chased by Dinosaurs seems more spontaneous and fun. Prehistoric Park feels more scripted. Also, the mammals (mammoths and sabertooths) in Prehistoric Park aren’t as convincing as the dinosaurs. Nonetheless, Prehistoric Park is a lot of fun and well worth viewing.

Dinosaur Train

The Jim Henson company produces this animated educational series for preschoolers. The artwork is cartoonish, rather than naturalistic. But the series presents accurate information about paleontology and ecology to young children. You can find some episodes on DVD, like Dinosaur Train: Dinosaurs Under the Sea.

Dino Dan

This low-budget, live action children's adventure series won't win any awards for special effects. But the premise -- that real dinosaurs frequently visit young Dan Henderson at home or at school -- is very appealing, and the stories (e.g., "There's a Compsognathus Under My Bed") amuse young children.

In the United States, the series can be seen on the cable network Nick Jr. Episodes are also available on DVD from Amazon. A four disk set, Dino Dan: Dino 4 Pack, is being released in August 2013.

For the aspiring paleontologist

If you missed it, Nova’s The Four Winged Dinosaur is an outstanding 56-minute documentary about the way that paleontologists work to reconstruct the behavior of dinosaurs.

Spectacular fossils show that the pigeon-sized Microraptor had something resembling wings on both its arms and legs. Did this dinosaur fly? How can we know? And what does Microraptor imply about the evolution of birds?

The show interviews several key players, including the young Chinese scientist who discovered Microraptor. He suggests his own theories, and gets to put these theories to the test in a wind tunnel experiment with some of his American colleagues. I’ve seen this show twice, and suspect it will inspire older kids who are interested in pursuing a career in paleontology.

Life on earth: General guides to paleontology

As I note on my page about teaching paleontology to kids, the book Evolving Planet: Four Billion Years of Life on Earth(2008) stands out as an especially effective introduction to earth history and natural selection for kids in the 9-12 age range.


Content last modified 8/13