The book that made me a reader

Rod Ruth’s spectacular cover painting

At the edge of a Jurassic forest of ferns and palms, a fierce tyrannosaurus rex roars defiantly as a dark volcano explodes, spewing a tall fountain of lava that reddens the smoke-choked, hellish sky. Overhead, a trio of pteranodons soar serenely away from the blast. In the background, three desperate pachycephalosauri hurry furtively across a meadow, threading the needle between a volcanic apocalypse and an apex predator.

At the age of five, I gaped — transfixed — at the glorious cover of Rand McNally’s Album of Dinosaurs, resplendent on a store shelf.

Forgetting how poor we were, I begged my mom to buy it for me. As a single mother raising five children, she had to say no. I cried inconsolably.

An unfillable Album of Dinosaurs-sized void dominated the next several months of my life. Our family owned few books, but Mom took us to the library every week, so there were always plenty of borrowed tomes in our single-wide trailer. Tragically, however, the Federal Way Public Library did not stock Album of Dinosaurs, and the dinosaur books they did carry paled by comparison. Even my favorite Saturday morning TV showthe first inspiration for my dinosaur obsession—now offered scant consolation (though I continued to treasure my Land of the Lost lunch box and thermos).

A “Land of the Lost” lunch box like the one I toted to kindergarten (Credit: Pinterest)

Months later, I got Album of Dinosaurs for Christmas. (A patient saver, Mom always found a way.) It was the first new book I ever owned — way cooler than my few worn-out Golden Books, handed down from older siblings.

Enraptured, I pored over the lavish illustrations adorning every interior page.

Pandering expertly to my boyish bloodlust, Rod Ruth’s dramatic drawings and paintings depicted a prehistoric past of nonstop predator-and-prey mayhem.

A bulky brachiosaurus wades in the shallows of a tropical lake, lazily twisting its long neck to see the source of some commotion behind it….

A ravening allosaurus emerges from the jungle, just a few yards behind the placid plant eater….

Pardon the smudges on this page — evidence of long years of loving use.

The predator pounces on the big herbivore’s back, chomping down on its long neck….

As the allosaurus tears into its prey, several crocodile-like theriosuchi swim up, hoping to join the feast.

Unwilling to share, allosaurus roars at the scavengers and picks the carcass clean.

This was the moment I learned books are better than TV.

On Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and in the old Disney nature documentaries shown at school, predators pursued prey, but — despite excellent camera work and exciting music—these chases utterly lacked suspense, because the herbivore always escaped. Even at age five, I knew that was bogus, that carnivores would starve if every hunt always failed.

So, Rod Ruth’s illustrations thrilled by revealing the subversive truth: Many hunts end badly for the hunted.

But not all do.

Album of Dinosaurs accurately showed a variety of possible outcomes.

Even tyrannosaurus rex — the book’s undisputed star — is not always successful.

He makes short work of an anatosaurus,…

…but fails to bring down a triceratops — nearly getting gored by this determined charge.

Inspired by Rod Ruth’s stirring illustrations, I spent more time drawing, working hard to sketch dinosaurs as fierce and lifelike as Rod Ruth’s. (My art improved, but I never approached his level of mastery.)

More important, Album of Dinosaurs turned me into a ravenous reader. I knew how read before then, but I was more interested in watching TV, playing outside, and drawing. When I did read, I consumed mostly comic books, picture books, and simple chapter books like Frog and Toad. I had never attempted a book intended for much older readers.

At first, I found Album of Dinosaurs difficult to read; it is written at a 7th-grade level, and I was just in kindergarten! However, the dazzling illustrations and my lust to learn about dinosaurs spurred me to persevere. Over the next several months, I obsessively read and reread Tom McGowen’s prose until I finally understood everything.

The book is packed with facts, but it does not read like a textbook. McGowen began most chapters with a riveting vignette to draw in the reader, making you feel like you are there in the prehistoric past, watching as a teratosaurus springs from a steamy jungle to sink its claws into an unsuspecting plateosaurus.

As a five-year-old, I found it shocking that McGowen’s narratives sometimes diverged from the outcomes shown in Ruth’s illustrations.

For example, while the artwork shows a toreador T-rex deftly eluding a charging triceratops, McGowen’s prose depicts the perils of predation in the Cretaceous Period:

“The tyrannosaur moves aside as the horned dinosaur thunders past, but a horn grazes the flesh eater’s leg….

“Once again the triceratops hurls itself suddenly forward, and this time the tyrannosaur isn’t quick enough. The horned dinosaur slams into the flesh eater, jerking its head upward savagely so that its two long horns rip deep into the tyrannosaur’s belly! The impact lifts the flesh eater off its feet and hurls it backward to sprawl on the ground. Moving forward quickly, the triceratops jabs its horn again and again into the fallen tyrannosaur’s body.”

This was the moment I learned prose could outperform illustrations. Pummelled daily by my older brothers, I drew hope from this example of a scrappy herbivore turning the tables on an apex predator.

McGowen immediately followed this bloodthirsty tale with a cold splash of scientific realism: “Of course, …fights between Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops must have been a rarity. Just as the savage lion of our world stays out of the way of the husky, horned rhinoceros, so Tyrannosaurus probably seldom bothered any of the horned dinosaurs.”

Scattered throughout the book, these sober asides model mature scientific thinking, inoculating the reader to some degree against the gory sensationalism of Ruth’s illustrations and McGowen’s narrative vignettes.

Album of Dinosaurs was largely accurate in 1972, but the ensuing half-century of new discoveries has eroded some of its scientific value — though not its artistic and literary merit.

Indeed, the myth that the apatosaurus had two brains — one in its skull, and a second in a spinal cavity near its hind legs—led McGowen to quote lines from a comic poem by Bert Leston Taylor (1866–1921), which deserves to live forever.

McGowen omitted some lines bound to confound the juvenile reader, but I have reproduced Taylor’s entire “butt brain” poem here:

Behold the mighty dinosaur,
Famous in prehistoric lore,
Not only for his weight and length,
But for his intellectual strength.
You will observe by these remains
The creature had two sets of brains,
The one in his head, the usual place,
The other at his spinal base.
Thus he could reason
a priori
As well as
a posteriori.
No problem bothered him a bit,
He made both head and tail of it.
So wise he was
So wise and solemn
Each thought filled just a spinal column.
If one brain found the pressure strong,
It passed a few ideas along.
If something slipped the forward mind
’Twas rescued by the one behind.
And if in error he was caught
He had a saving afterthought.
As he thought twice before he spoke
He had no judgment to revoke.
For he could think without congestion
Upon both sides of every question.
O gaze upon this noble beast,
Defunct ten million years at least.

Sadly, both Rod Ruth and Tom McGowen are now themselves extinct.

Rod Ruth (1912–87) drew comic strips and painted cover art for pulp magazines like Amazing Stories before breaking into book illustration. Shortly before his death, his art and McGowen’s prose from Album of Dinosaurs and Album of Prehistoric Animals was reincarnated (with a remarkably hideous ‘80s cover redesign) as Funk & Wagnalls World of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals (1987). Unfortunately, none of Ruth’s books now remain in print.

An astonishingly prolific writer, Tom McGowen (1927–2015) cranked out dozens of nonfiction titles, some historical fiction, and a few novels. While most have since passed out of print, Scholastic continues to stock African-Americans in the Old West (1999).

Near the end of Album of Dinosaurs, McGowen and Ruth depict an epic bout between a T-rex and an ankylosaur:

“Rounding a clump of redwood trees,” the tyrannosaur “comes suddenly upon an armored ankylosaur.”

“When… attacked,” the ankylosaur “whipped around” and — “THUMP!” — “smashed” its club tail into the predator’s “legs or body with enough force to crack bones and send it sprawling.”

Undaunted, the T-rex renews the chase.

“The armored dinosaur is much too slow to run, so it depends on its armor to save it. Quickly it squats down, tucking its legs under itself.

“The tyrannosaur bends low and snaps at the ankylosaur’s armored back. Its teeth make a rasping sound against the hard, bony armor. The tyrannosaur claws at the ankylosaur with one of its big, taloned feet. But the armored dinosaur’s broad, flat body hugs the ground like a boulder, and the tyrannosaur’s claws barely scratch the armor.”

Here, Album of Dinosaurs presents two possible outcomes. In one version, the T-rex gets “a mouth full of broken teeth” and — giving up on the ankylosaur — “lopes” away to pursue easier prey. In the other version…

“an enraged and hungry tyrannosaur…, clawing savagely with its back feet at an armored dinosaur’s body, managed to turn the ankylosaur over onto its back so that its unprotected throat and belly were exposed. In an instant the flesh eater’s teeth… savagely… tear… into the unprotected flesh! And like a turtle on its back, all the unfortunate ankylosaur could have done… was… feebly kick its legs and… thrash about, vainly trying to strike its enemy with its war-club tail.”

I loved Album of Dinosaurs too much, too long, and too ruggedly. My copy has barely survived. It is now a thoroughly worn-out relic — too fragile for reading — with a battered cover, broken spine, frayed binding, and stained pages coming loose.

Album of Dinosaurs marked my transition from little kid books to big kid books. Next, I devoured Album of Prehistoric Animals and Album of Prehistoric Man, also by McGowen and Ruth. Over the next few years, my interests expanded to outer space, science fiction, high fantasy, and finally history. Album of Dinosaurs kindled a lifetime love of reading, opening the door to limitless worlds of imagination and adventure.

History, politics, education, music, culture. Award-winning high school teacher, former principal. College instructor. Seahawks Diehard. Twitter: @brian_mrbmkz

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