Back in 1994, before Robert Sabuda had fully gotten into the flow of pop-up picture book art, he created some early pop-ups with names like, "The Mummy's Tomb" and "The Knight's Castle". Even with these fledgling efforts, Sabuda impressed himself on the critics. Said Publisher's Weekly of Sabuda's 1994 titles, "It's rare to find a pop-up book in which the paper-engineering is the servant, not the master, of the art". Fast-forward to 2005 and here we have Mr. Sabuda creating more pitch-perfect pop-up wonders than anyone else in America. Candlewick Press must be hugging itself with glee to have wrested Sabuda from the claims of other publishers. I've avoided reviewing Sabuda pop-up books until this moment for the simple reason that it is very hard to be subjective in the face of his work. On a first reading of "Encyclopedia Prehistorica: Dinosaurs" (which is only the first in the "Encyclopedia Prehistorica" series) I kept trying to assess the factual content of the book alongside the quality of the illustrations. Instead, I'd turn a page and find myself yelling to my husband, "Honey, look! The dinosaur's pulling the guts out of this brontosaurus!!! Come watch!". And he would and I'd try to read some other passage in the book and then yell, "Honey, look! You can make the two little men fight over the dinosaur bones with this one!!! Come watch!". And he would and this would go on for about 40 minutes. Very few picture books have the ability to be precisely as cool to their adult consumers as to the children who are the supposed audience. Sabuda's books are the exception to the rule and this dinosaur book is gonna knock the little suckers dead.
On the cover of this book (fashioned to look as if it were bound in some kind of mottled leather) a sticker proclaims that "Encyclopedia Prehistorica: Dinosaurs" contains, "up-to-the-minute information about more than 50 different dinosaurs". I read this with some interest since the American Museum of Natural History had a recent exhibit of new dino discoveries and I was eager to see whether or not Matthew Reinhart (the oft ignored but nonetheless necessary collaborator to Robert Sabuda's books) would incorporate some of those new facts. What I found were fascinating suppositions, queries, and theories, many of which were entirely unknown to me. I dunno where Reinhart gets his facts (the book doesn't exactly reveal its sources or offer anything so useful as a bibliography) but there's some goofy fun stuff within the pages of this text.
Like many of Sabuda's books, each page the reader turns to offers one big pop-up, and then small booklets that contain even smaller pop-ups. These usually illustrate some kind of side information that relate to the two-page theme. For example, when you turn to the pages about "Long-Necked Giants", the little booklets talk about sauropod defences and the distinguishing characteristics found between the mamenchisaurus, the brontosaurus, the amargosaurus, and the plateosaurus. My spell-check is have conniptions with those names, but never mind. The point is that this layout, already used so well in Sabuda's, "Alice In Wonderland" and "Wizard of Oz" pop-up books, is far better suited to this kind of disjointed non-fiction narrative. It's as if Sabuda has finally found the perfect match to his golly-gee-whiz-bang style.
The book mostly covers different kinds of dinosaurs, and then ends with some speculation on what happened to the dinos in the end. The pop-up on this final two-pages is of an archaeopteryx. Unfortunately, this image doesn't leap from the pages quite as gracefully as the warm-blooded lizards of the previous spreads did. Nevertheless, we get a good schooling in the dino-into-birdy theory, the asteroid-goes-boom theory, and the climate-changes-dinos-go-all-chilly theory.
As I mentioned before, some of the theories in this book are wild. Check out the speculation that the stegosaurus's plated armor may have acted as heat exchangers or (my favorite) they flashed bright colors to warn off rivals or predators. Neon-sign dinosaurs. Cool. Everyone will have their favorite spreads but my particular favs include the already mentioned Victorian scientists tugging on a single bone (you can just make them go back and forth for hours on end) and the allosaurus tugging a raw chunk of bloody meat out of its prey. Of course, Sabuda isn't afraid to play on little kids' eternal love of T. Rex. The pop-out monster will find more than one parent hastily pulling the book back to avoid Rex's snout in their lap.
As a librarian, I feel obligated to comment on the sturdy nature of the pop-ups. Sabuda's books have always, in my experience, fared a little better than the average pop-up productions out there. He avoids common problems like pull-tabs and interactive elements. Sure, you can watch a dinosaur pounce on another in this book, but all you'll be doing is opening and closing some pages. Breakable tabs are non-existent here. This isn't to say that some parts of the book will wear away more quickly than others. A reading of one or two times revealed the stegoceras' claws already bent, but the paper in this book is tough. It's gonna take a lot of tugging, prying, bending, ripping little hands before this book is beat-up enough to thow in the towel.
A couple years ago a children's literature listserv I belong to wondered whether or not the manual labor put into Robert Sabuda's books via China or, in this case, Thailand was morally and ethically sound. And though I do not remember how exactly the answer was arrived at, the conclusion was that these books could be purchased with a thoroughly clear conscience. One less thing to worry about.
The book mentions right from the start the dinner party thrown by Waterhouse Hawkins, making this book an ideal companion to Barbara Kerley's fabulous, "The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins". Otherwise, it's hard to find any books out there that can easily be paired with this modern marvel. Definitely grab a copy of Steve Jenkins', "Prehistoric Actual Size" for a similarly unique take on dinos at large. You would think that the well of creativity regarding dinosaur picture books would be almost dry. Jenkins and now Sabuda have proven that this is hardly the case. A strangely witty and remarkably beautiful collection that will have a place of honor on your bookshelf. That is, until you buy the NEXT Sabuda/Reinhart collaboration. Top drawer.