Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon

illlustrated by Michael Dooling (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1999).
NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People
Society of School Librarians International 2000 Honor Book
“Brings the young fossilist wonderfully to life.” -- The New York Times Book Review

My husband used to hide plastic dinosaurs in the cuffs of his trousers before heading off to school. He no longer carries around toy triceratops, but they do inhabit our shelves and windowsills. He also collects books about prehistoric life, and in one of these I found a picture of a woman wearing a long skirt and straw bonnet, holding a hammer in her hand. I had to find out who that woman was.

This book gave Mary Anning’s name and the dates when she lived, providing enough information for me to find more facts and questions. I traveled to Lyme Regis, the town on the coast of England where Mary was born in 1799 and where she spent most of her life. I walked along the beach where eleven-year-old Mary found a seventeen-foot-long ichthyosaur fossil. I looked at pictures in the town’s historical museum, bought souvenirs in a fossil shop, and found the gravestone Mary shared with her brothers by the church where a stained glass window is dedicated to her: a large ammonite fossil is propped on the sill.

I listened to the waves and imagined the questions Mary might have posed as she chiseled the rock, slowly, painstakingly, back at a time when the word “dinosaur” hadn’t yet been coined..
I returned home, where now pictures of Mary Anning have a place among the plastic prehistoric creatures, books, and geraniums in our home. I liked to think of the girl carefully chiseling stone as I searched for just the right words to describe her. I sent pictures I’d taken and books I’d bought to Michael Dooling, who used oil paints to capture Mary’s wonder and determination and the feeling of a foggy nineteenth-century seaside town.

In classrooms, sometimes we make a list of qualities of Mary Anning and scientists in general. Then we talk about the things Mary did that let us know she was persistent, curious, observant, loved her work, etc.

The one drawing that was made of Mary before she died showed her wearing a shawl and top hat. It’s assumed she wore the gentleman’s hat to protect her head from rocks that might fall from the cliffs where she worked. Someone may be able to bring in a top hat, which people originally wore the way kids now wear bicycle helmets, to keep their heads safe. What did Mary think about wearing the hat at the beginning of the book? How did she feel at the end? What changed?

It’s fun to study how fossils form, and some enterprising students (with even more enterprising teachers) have made their own fossil-like plaster casts. Kids can research some of the extinct creatures Mary discovered; they can compare pictures of the fossils of the ichthyosaur, pterosaur, and plesiosaur to the drawings made by contemporary artist-scientists. The class might make lists of other women scientists and write short biographies. For help, please check the bibliography in my book Girls Who Looked Under Rocks: The Lives of Six Pioneering Naturalists. Kids may write their own stories about some of their adventures.

Recommended Links:

Mary Anning (1799-1847)
This site will help you locate and learn more about Lyme Regis, in Dorset, England, Mary Anning, and the prehistoric creatures she studied. There’s a picture of the portrait I first saw that is now in the British Museum in London.

Zoom Dinosaurs
This site at Enchanted is packed with ideas and information. There’s paleontology news, crafts, classroom games, links, and even dino jokes. It’s easy to navigate from basic to advanced information.

Michael Dooling: History Through Picture Books
Here you can learn more about the illustrator of this book and see other examples of how he recreates history through painting. He tells a bit about how he does research to get the details just right and finds costumes: he says that every day is like Halloween at his house! Michael illustrates new books all the time; his work includes picture book biographies of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, all written by James Cross Giblin.

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