Book Review: When the Whales Walked and other incredible evolutionary journeys

By Dougal Dixon, illustrated by Hannah Bailey, Quarto, 2018

If you’ve peeked inside a dinosaur book in the last few years, you may have noticed the presence of crocodiles, creatures like the sarcosuchus, living at the same time as dinosaurs, preying on them. But I had no idea that crocodiles had ‘ruled the world’ for 50m years before the dinosaurs, as well as outlasting them. This book is filled with gems, nuggets of informational joy, as well as pictures  – such pictures – Wow! We say, look at that! A 13 metre snake eating a crocodile. A whale with legs. The size of that bird! This is a book with something for everyone. My son can sate his yearning for big cats with the dirk-, scimitar-, and sabre-toothed cats – megafauna required mega-predators. My daughter is intrigued by the connection between rhinos and horses – classifying the pictures she sees with the insouciance of a three-year-old that would have most paelontologists reeling.

The depths of information in this book are startling, but it’s broken up into chunks that the kids can absorb. The diagrams (‘cladograms’) are ripe for study and conversation, adding snippets of knowledge and understanding each time – for them and for us.

We made a trip over the holidays to Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, CT. The dome full of dinosaur tracks was closed of course, but set into the path was a timeline from the beginning of life on earth to the present. The kids jumped along it with their friends as we shouted out the names of the periods and the creatures. Eventually, in the last sliver, we came to humans, and we stood together and looked back at the time that has gone before us. And that’s when our friend recommended this book, the perfect follow on. Each child can pick an opening point of interest – dinosaurs, snakes, big cats, monkeys, horses, mammoths, anything with big teeth, and from there the book pulls them in, adding layers, backwards and forwards in time.

The last pages bring us right up to date with evolution on-going – and the current man-made mass extinction, the climate crisis facing us, facing them. Helping our children understand the world seems all the more vital. The book ends on a hopeful note, that life will ‘survive and adapt’, it will evolve. So we have gifted it and recommended it – it’s a book to share, just too good to keep to ourselves.

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