Certain authors appear very frequently on school library bookshelves and even though on-one ever seems to know them by name, their books seem to be everywhere. Philip Sauvain is one such author, a mainstay of school library collections in the past, who has written extensively on geography and history subjects as diverse as Scott of the Antarctic, map work and victorian seaside holidays. It is hard to imagine how anyone can write about skyscrapers one minute and Iron Age people the next, but he managed to, and countless children before the age of the internet must have gleaned what facts they could about icebergs or roman helmets from one of his 150 or so texts. All credit to him for a long and successful career in writing (he is now 81 I think).
Dinosaurs, written by Sauvain and published in 1976, is from the ‘A First Look Book’ series, illustrated by Jim Robins with black and white photos and three-colour prints. First Look Books formed a massive series published by Franklin Watts between the 1970s and the 1980s. There are books on milk, linen, wood, vets, lasers and helicopters. I think they were aimed at top infant and junior children aged about 6-10. One thing you notice about them is that the sentences are very very short and complicated words are in bold. Nevertheless despite the wholesale and somewhat mechanical nature of the series, Dinosaurs has a certain appeal, showing Sauvain’s skill. After all it must have been incredibly hard to produce good quality books to order, on any range of titles, within strict word limits and with restricted vocabulary.
Sauvain tells us what we need to know about how dinosaurs were discovered; the range and variety of types; what they did and where they did it. But he also picks out the dinosaur facts which might appeal to a young child and presents them in a quiet understated way which allows the imagination room to breathe. Here, for example, Sauvain asks us to:
‘picture a swamp a million years ago with small groups or herds of plant-eating dinosaurs grazing in a wood by a lake…..The only sounds might have been the champing and grinding of teeth and occasional croaks or barks’.
‘If you could have gone to a dinosaur feeding ground 140 million years ago, you would have needed light clothes to keep you cool and waterproof boots to keep you dry when wading through the swamps’.
Plenty of atmosphere, who needs Jurassic Park?
I like Sauvain’s authorial voice too, it is firm and practical rather than avuncular and seems to imply that although he too might like to wade through some prehistoric swamps with you, he isn’t going to admit to it outright.
There are some great contemporary dinosaur books out there and I wouldn’t expect Dinosaurs to stand up to the scrutiny of modern children. For one thing our understanding has moved on. It is interesting to read Sauvain’s reasons for the extinction of the dinosaurs for example (other animals ate their eggs; they caught some nasty disease; the evergreen trees which were the food of the plant-eaters were replaced by deciduous trees which they could not eat). Most people now agree with the Alvarez asteroid hypothesis (and the evidence to support it) that the extinction of the dinosaurs was caused by one or several massive meteor strikes on the earth which caused atmospheric and weather chaos. This theory really only gained credence in the 1980s, so was just missed by Sauvain’s book. Other areas of knowledge about dinosaurs have also moved on as new discoveries come to light. Sauvain himself reflects on this at the end of the book:
‘there might even be new types of dinosaur, waiting only for someone to come along and find them’.
However I think this indicates nicely the temporary nature of factual knowledge. I like to think that the male, white-coated palaeontologists in Sauvain’s book were not wrong, merely making steps along the way towards future, different ‘truths’.