March 21, 2016

Twelve-year-old paleontologist

Rare Treasure: Mary Anning and Her Remarkable Discoveries
written and illustrated by Don Brown

In 1811, a young girl discovered the fossilized skeleton of an ichthyosaur beneath an English cliff. The discoverer, Mary Anning, was twelve-years-old. She grew up to become a well-known fossil-hunter whose fossils are displayed in museums all over the world.

This engaging biography illuminates Anning's fearlessness, her sense of adventure and her curiosity. The watercolour illustrations, alternately pale and vibrant, add pathos and emotion. 

Stone Girl, Bone Girl: The Story of Mary Anning
by Laurence Anholt
illustrated by Sheila Moxley

This picture book devotes more time in exploring the relationship between Mary Anning and her father, whom she called "Pepper." He introduced her to fossil hunting before dying of an unnamed illness (possibly tuberculosis). At this point, Anholt can't resist delving into poetic license, having Pepper reincarnated as a little speckled dog who helps Mary make her exciting discovery.

The interesting pictures, reminiscent of old-fashioned folk art, reflect the sadness and danger permeating much of the story before its celebratory ending. But even that is tempered with melancholy as the dog disappears, leaving Mary wistfully recalling its faint bark. 

When read along with Rare Treasure, the deviations from the truth are readily apparent, which should foster discussion among young readers regarding the ethics of nonfiction. How should fiction be used to enhance a story and should the reader be warned beforehand?  Even the final epilogue is slightly suspect since there is no bibliography to support the story. There's no bibliography in Rare Treasure either, although Don Brown does mention a history museum and library in his thanks. Hopefully, both books will encourage further research on the life of Mary Anning.

By the way, the title refers to a teasing rhyme that local children used to call Mary: Stone girl, bone girl, out-on-your-own girl. But even that turned out to be false; the rhyme was actually the well-known tongue-twister She sells seashells by the seashore, which is quoted in its entirety at book's end.

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