Picture Book Review: An Alphabet of Dinosaurs

An Alphabet of Dinosaurs
Written by Dr. Peter Dodson and illustrated by Wayne D. Barlowe, 1995

I have many memories of enjoying An Alphabet of Dinosaurs as a kid, mostly thanks to Wayne D. Barlowe’s gorgeous illustrations.

While in grades 1-3 (about the target audience of the picture book), I borrowed An Alphabet of Dinosaurs from my school library a lot. It spent a lot of time in my backpack, on my kitchen table, and on my bedroom floor. I remember sitting with it in the car or just before bed, flipping the big pages and drinking in the striking images.

I recently picked it up again, curious how it would compare to my early memories, and I found the paintings to be just as fascinating as I remembered. Part of the appeal comes from the formatting of the book itself, and from the careful composition of the paintings. Even in my adult hands the pages are large, with illustrations taking up the entirety of every second page with no borders of any kind. The dinosaurs themselves don’t fill the majority of these images – there’s always room for detailed landscapes, and often other species inhabiting the environment. This creates the feeling that you are stepping into a dynamic world… And with 26 full illustrations, there’s a lot of world for young readers to explore.

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An Erlikosaurus feeding on insects

It’s obvious that pains were taken to make the dinosaurs and their world feel as real as possible – some illustrations remind me of sci-fi illustrations that depict aliens on distant planets. The author explains the reasoning behind this artistic choice in the introduction:

The paintings in this book show dinosaurs as we now think of them. Gone is the image of slow-moving giants. Gone is the image of tail-dragging lizards. Instead, we see vibrant, active dinosaurs living in a world filled with brightly coloured animals and plants.

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An oviraptor with its crab dinner

I think it’s worth noting that, even though these depictions of dinosaurs were forward-thinking when the book was first published in 1995, palaeontology has changed enough in the past 21 years to make these illustrations noticeably outdated. In a modern version of this book, you would see feathers covering almost all of the theropods. Additionally, the illustrations often “shrink wrap” their subjects – “pulling” the skin too tight over the skeleton without taking fat and muscle into sufficient account.

These issues are to be expected, given that palaeontology is constantly moving forward. It’s encouraging to me to think that this kind of paleoart has gone from new and innovative to outdated within my lifetime.

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A pair of Baryonyx, with “cling wrap” skin exposing their spines and ribcages

I haven’t yet mentioned the actual “alphabet” in this Alphabet of Dinosaurs, and there’s a reason for that. As a child, I wasn’t actually able to read the text (and, as an adult, I still find the illustrations to be by far the most interesting part of the book).

The written portion of the book progresses as you would expect most alphabet books to: first the book names a dinosaur, the first letter enlarged for emphasis. Ankylosaurus, Baryonyx, Chasmosaurus, and so forth. This is followed by two or three sentences, providing some facts about the creature.

I think that as a child I had several issues with the text that prevented me from reading it. One was the use of large and sometimes difficult-to-understand words. I’ll provide an example:

Leptoceratops was a tiny, distant cousin of the triceratops. Since its front legs were so much shorter than its back legs, some scientists think it may have run on its long hind limbs.

Sure, it’s easy enough to understand as an adult. But many of the words are long, difficult to sound out, or simply confusing for a child still learning to read.

Another issue is the size of the text. While large text normally makes for easier reading, the compact positioning of the sentences on the page combined with the font size creates the illusion of a dense paragraph, or at least it did to my eyes as a child.

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My emotional journey trying to read the text when I was a kid (I’m the baby maiasaura looking at the big, scary pterosaur)

I probably would have fared better if an adult had read the book to me (which was probably the intent of the author – he even includes a pronunciation guide for the dinosaur names at the back of the book). Still, I think it’s at least worth noting that the book ultimately doesn’t work well as an alphabet book. It’s more like a book of interesting dinosaur facts that just happens to be organized alphabetically.

Despite my criticism, I do actually love this book. It didn’t necessarily teach me much as a child, but it did seriously inspire my imagination. The time I spent gazing in wonder at the pictures lead me to pick up dinosaur books that I did learn a lot from in later years. While the text didn’t do much for me, after reading through it recently I do think it includes some really interesting facts that a child might enjoy at the right reading level or with the proper guidance.

Overall, even though the book is in some ways outdated, it’s still a touchstone from my childhood that I think deserves recognition.

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A stoic velociraptor
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Why I Can’t Hate The Lorax Adaptations, Even Against My Better Judgement

I was never a real fan of Dr. Seuss. As a kid I had pretty average exposure to his most well-known works: Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat were read to me a few times, and I watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas every December on television. Seuss’ books were certainly present in my childhood, but somehow they never captured my imagination or stuck with me. So even though I appreciate how well crafted Seuss’ books are now that I’m an adult, it’s hard to conjure up much enthusiasm or interest in them. But there is one book that stands out as the exception for me: The Lorax.

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Originally published in 1971.

Reading it now, The Lorax seems like a very strange books for children. It’s melancholy, it doesn’t have a happy ending, and it’s just a tad scary (That 2-page spread at the beginning and ending of the book, in which the Once-ler peaks out from a chink in his boarded-up window with wide yellow eyes, is practically nightmare-fuel). The book begins with an unnamed child wandering into a grimy wasteland to listen to the tale of the Once-ler, who is only shown through glimpses of his arms and eyes. He tells the boy how this wasteland was once a beautiful paradise, but he himself destroyed it by harvesting all of the Truffula trees against the constant warnings of an ugly little creature called the Lorax. In the end, the Once-ler gives the boy the very last Truffula seed, warning him that unless someone like him “cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

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This scared the bejesus out of me when I was 6 years old.

What I think is most peculiar about The Lorax is that it’s not the little boy’s story (he doesn’t get a single line of dialogue in the book), but the Once-ler’s. It’s an adult’s story, told exclusively through the eyes of an adult, but written in language intelligible to a child. I cannot speak for the experiences of others, but when I was a child (maybe 7 or 8 years old) I found the book to be a surprisingly comprehensible look into adult life. I think that most kids know that grown-ups do things that they shouldn’t do — they smoke and drink alcohol, they hurt people and steal things, they start wars, and they ruin the environment.  But how can someone as smart as a grown-up, with all the knowledge and experience of a parent or teacher, possibly make such bad decisions? They should know better, right?

What The Lorax did, at least for me, was introduce the idea that grown-ups often do bad things believing that they are good things. And it didn’t just introduce this concept: it illustrated it through a narrative where the Once-ler’s decisions and reasoning totally make sense to a child. In this way, The Lorax treads an incredibly thin line with fantastic skill — it positions the Once-ler as both the story’s protagonist and villain, and he is believable as both. As a child I knew on some level that I was then like the little boy being told the story by the Once-ler, but I was also aware that someday I would be a grown-up and, like the Once-ler, I would probably make terrible decisions believing them to be right. It filled me with dread, but I also found it fascinating and incredibly insightful, at least as far as I was able to reflect on it with my child’s-mind. These ideas, and Dr. Seuss’ narrative have stuck with me through the years, and they are why I find The Lorax so interesting and poignant.

All this is to say that I carry a lot of emotional baggage into any adaptation of The Lorax, and that greatly skews my appraisal of it. On one hand, I want an adaptation to convey the same sense of sadness and inevitability as the original book. I want the Once-ler to flawlessly walk the line between hero and villain, and I want all of the major plot elements as well as all the important little details of the book to be delivered to me intact.

But at the same time, I am always incredibly happy to see any adaptation of the story produced, even if it takes many creative liberties. The existence of adaptations means that the original story meant enough to a group of people out there that they felt it was worthwhile to produce their own version of it. More importantly, it means that many new people will likely be exposed to the story.

With these opinions and emotional attachments in mind, I want to compare two different adaptations of The Lorax. These are the 1972 cartoon television short, and the 2012 animated film.

Often when people evaluate an adaptation, loyalty to the source material is a primary reference point to measure how “good” it is. And that makes sense, because if you love the source material, then you probably want the adaptation to evoke the same positive feelings. In the case of the television special based on The Lorax, pains were obviously taken to be as loyal as possible. The art style is extremely similar to that in the picture book, and the animators are careful never to show any more of the Once-ler than his arms and legs. This latter decision was certainly made to conform closely to the visual style of the book, perhaps at the short’s expense. I do think that they managed to give the Once-ler some great body language quirks given the limitations, but sometimes the character feels a little too static for animation, and the careful framing to keep his body out of sight is sometimes a little awkward. But these minor gripes aside, I think the animators do a lovely job of translating the one-dimensional illustrations of Dr. Seuss into a living world with depth, and movement that compliments the unique art style.

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The Once-ler shows off his new invention to the Lorax in the 1972 television short.

The story, too, is very loyal to the book. The overarching plot is essentially the same, with much of the dialogue lifted directly from the source material. Even when the dialogue is different, it often follows the same rhyming style as Seuss’ original verses (although not always). The changes are fairly minor, taking into account that this is a completely different medium. Several details that could be taken out without changing the plot were removed, such as the Once-ler requiring payment to tell his story (15 cents, a nail, and the shell of a great-great-great grandfather snail, to be precise).The short’s inclusion of so much of the book’s content helps to give it the feeling of the book brought to life. It also gives the impression that the creators had great respect for Dr. Seuss’ original work, which I can’t help but appreciate.

As is to be expected, however, many things were added to the narrative to make it more suitable for television. There are sequences of slapstick comedy (for example, the Lorax attempting to escape from dangerous machinery as they chop down and transport the Truffula trees), and many brief songs scattered throughout the short. If I have one nit-pick, it’s that short’s songs feel out of place, unnecessary, and awkward to me. This isn’t to say that children won’t enjoy the humorous sequences and music — I’m sure that they were added with the express purpose of holding the attention of young children. But as an adult I feel like they are rather tedious.

My feelings on the short are overall positive, though. One of my favourite elements that the short brought to the story are some great pieces of dialogue. I love lines like “I speak for the trees! And I’ll yell, and I’ll shout, for the fine things on earth that are on their way out!” and “They say I’m old-fashioned and live in the past… But sometimes I think progress progresses too fast”.

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The Lorax lamenting over the disappearance of the forest.

Additionally, the attention the short gives to the Once-ler’s motivations and struggles help to make him relatable, which I think is very important to the central message of the book. In the original story he is a faceless “everyman”, and he still is in the short, but his conflicting feelings and justifications for his actions are more clearly stated. In a pivotal decision-making moment he angrily asks the Lorax “Well what do you want? I should shut down my factory? Fire 100,000 workers? Is that good economics? Is that sound for the country?” and the Lorax has to admit that he “wouldn’t know the answer”. I think that the short does an excellent job of having the Once-ler tread the line between protagonist and villain, and even provides some interesting insights into the thought-processes behind his and the Lorax’s actions — impressive in a visual medium.

My feelings towards the short can be summed up fairly succinctly: I have issues with one or two minor details, but overall it’s a good adaptation, and very enjoyable to watch.

The 2012 film (officially titled Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax), on the other hand, is more complicated. You could even say that it’s a hodgepodge mess of things that I love and things that I’m… Not so fond of.

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The Lorax gives the audience a pair of sassy eyebrows in an advertisement for the 2012 film.

Unlike the short, the film actually has very few scenes with an equivalent in Seuss’ picture book. The general plot of the book is somewhere in there, but it’s confusedly woven into a narrative about… Lots of things. Some of the plot threads include: the young boy (now named Ted) trying to win the affections of a girl he likes; a dystopian Brave New World-esque society called Thneedville built in a self-contained bubble on the outskirts of the wasteland where the Once-ler lives; the Once-ler’s abusive family pressuring him into creating an industry out of the production of thneeds from Truffula trees…. I could go on. It’s very different. Even in the rare moments when dialogue pulled directly from the book, it is often spoken with an air of ridiculousness, as if the movie wants to distance itself from any silliness that may be attached to the idea of the book.

I could write forever about all the changes, big and small, that the movie makes. But I think what it comes down to is that the film seeks to modernize the story. Which can often feel like disrespect towards the source material. But as tempting as it is to dismiss the movie on these grounds, I can’t help but also admire it for how sharp it’s commentary can be.

The original book takes a very strong, very heavy stance against consumerism and the destruction of the environment, and the film doesn’t try to step around these themes by being subtle. In the opening sequence of the film, residents of Thneedville sing happily about their new cars, houses, and beautiful lawns, followed by “here in got-more-than-we-need-ville!” It’s a funny moment, but also uncompromisingly critical of commonplace complacent materialism. Throughout the film there are scenes and lines that may hit a little too close to home to be comfortable: a commercial for bottles of fresh air (the air in Thneedville is terribly polluted) that plays out exactly like a real-life beer commercial, many instances of characters intentionally skewing their own perception of the world they live in for their own comfort, charity fraud, and deliberately misleading advertising played for laughs yet also surprisingly on-the-nose.

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Bottled fresh air is delivered against a foreground of plastic flowers in the opening sequence of the 2012 movie.

It’s not that I think the film automatically deserves to be praised for carrying an anti-consumerism message (it could do so and still be a very poorly-made film), but I think it’s admirable how well it plays up these messages in the form of dark humour. It’s hard not to laugh, but it’s also hard not to feel uncomfortable, and if a movie can successfully entertain and sharply criticize its audience with a single line or 5-second scene, I think that’s quite impressive.

I’m also biased when it comes to the film’s visual style. I admire Illumination Entertainment’s vivid, detailed, colourful animation. I also appreciate their diverse human designs — the crowd-scenes in this film can be quite impressive in the attention paid to making each character distinct and unique. And in contrast to the television short, the songs are often funny, catchy, and integrated well into the film’s narrative.

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A shot of Thneedville town square.

Yet for all the praise that I feel the film is owed, I also don’t think it works as a whole. The plot is over-complicated, and relies on a new villain, named Aloysius O’Hare, who is 1-dimensional in the extreme. He essentially picked up where the Once-ler left off, running a business selling fresh air to the people of Thneedville. He is a strawman character with zero redeeming traits, and exists in the narrative solely so that Ted can go through a chosen-one-character arc. It’s all very unnecessary and distracts from what the film does well. It’s probably telling that in re-watching this film, I skipped quite a few several-minute-long sequences because I knew them to be inconsequential and annoying.

For all the praise I’m willing to give it, this movie hits on some of my worst pet peeves. The romantic subplot is corny and beyond unnecessary, and the comedy is often handled poorly. While the songs contain some really great moments of dark humour, most of the dialogue is written in a joke-every-few-seconds style. It can be grating. To make things worse, both the jokes and slapstick can lean heavily on fatphobic and sexist stereotypes, making the film downright cringe-worthy at times.

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“That’s a woman??” Because transphobic, fatphobic jokes are funny right

So, the film is quite a mixed bag of good, not-good, and really-not-good. On a whole I would say it fails, but it’s the interesting details that keep swaying me to its defence. Primary among these details is how the film chooses to portray the character of the Once-ler.

Unlike the short, which takes pains to keep the Once-ler’s appearance and personality as close to the book as possible, the movie changes his character completely. He’s introduced as a funny, charismatic, kind-hearted young man who is constantly strumming a guitar and singing silly songs. As the story progresses he remains funny and charismatic, but pressure from his insidiously manipulative mother lead him justify horrible actions, and result in the complete destruction of the Truffula forest.

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Who’s this guy supposed to be?

It could easily be argued that the film tries too hard to make the Once-ler more relatable than he needs to be. It could also be argued that in trying to modernize the character, they completely missed the mark and made the story something it’s not supposed to be. But speaking as someone who loves the original book, I think that the movie was right in attempting to modernize the Once-ler.

The whole point of his character is that he’s supposed to be an everyman, but in recent decades we’ve become so used to pinning our social and environmental problems on these faceless, self-interested “big business” owners, that it’s way too easy to distance ourselves from that kind of character-trope. If the movie had been too true to the book’s vision of the Once-ler, it would have been easy to look at him and say “I would never do what he did”, or “I would never support a person like that”, because the Evil Businessman is too cliché a trope now. The book’s approach may have been appropriate for it’s time, and the story still carry a lot of weight, but in a modern film for a modern audience it just doesn’t work anymore.

It’s interesting to note that after the 2012 film came out, the movie’s version of the Once-ler became hugely popular on social media platforms that hosted a lot of fan-created content: websites like DeviantArt, Fanfiction.net, and Tumblr. Since teenagers and young adults largely populate these sites, I think it’s reasonable to assume that this demographic found the character to be compelling and relatable. Which is odd, because children are supposed to be the target audience of this story. But I think it’s weirdly indicative of how the movie, whether accidentally or intentionally, identified exactly what kind of person the Once-ler would be in the modern day, and made his character speak to the people most in danger of becoming like him.

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Success can change a person.

When I think of the movie version of the Once-ler, I think of a quote used to describe Michael Acton Smith, the CEO and founder of the very successful UK-based company Mind Candy. The Daily Telegraph described the charismatic entrepreneur as “a rock star version of Willy Wonka”. And I think that’s precisely what this version of the Once-ler is: a rock star version of Willy Wonka. It’s easy to understand why he would believe himself to be “too big to fail” (as a poster in his factory proudly announces), and it’s easy to understand why people would support him. Therefore, it’s also easy to see how he went from good intentions to destructive actions. In a modern story, a cigar-smoking businessman doesn’t exactly present the best point of identification. But a funny and charismatic young man, playing a guitar and wearing silly retro-looking sunglasses unironically, actually kind of does.

I can’t, honestly and in good conscious, say that this movie works well as an adaptation. I can’t say that it works as a stand-alone piece of media either. It’s clunky and awkward, and every part of it that I praised is followed by another scene or line of dialogue that I can’t stand. But I can’t help but admire it for the chances it took.

The animated short is a solid adaptation with a few awkward bits sticking out here and there, and the movie is mess that’s sometimes hard to make heads or tails of. But even terribly constructed fiction can be worthwhile, and when it comes down to it, I enjoy all three versions of The Lorax. If I had my own child, I would without a doubt buy the book for them; I would make sure they got the chance to watch the animated short at some point; and, with only some reservations, I would likely get the movie for them too. Each adaptation brings something unique and interesting to a narrative that’s a classic in my mind.