Read Your Child Some Dinosaurs
Dinosaurs Before Dark by Mary Pope Osborne
In 1992, Mary Pope Osborne published a short little book that would spawn a long, still unended series that would be popular with children, parents, and teachers. It was Dinosaurs Before Dark, the first of the Magic Treehouse books.
On the surface, the books seem simple enough. They lack complexity and aren't particularly original. However, they are perfect for their readers with just enough creativity to capture and maintain interest. With so many of the early reader books barely rising above picture book status, it is refreshing to read a series such as the Magic Treehouse. It combines children of the readers' age, an easy-to-follow plot, and bits of history and science. There is even a bit of mystery and suspense thrown in.
The first book takes eight-and-a-half-year-old Jack and seven-year-old Annie back to prehistoric time through a magic treehouse. There they meet a Pteranodon (whom Annie names Henry), a Triceratops and a nesting ground of Anatosauruses. And, because no dinosaur book would be complete without one, they encounter a Tyronnosaurus Rex.
We share in the children's wonder as they visit a world where there are no humans. They explore and Jack takes simple notes about all he observes.
The book establishes several things that will hold true throughout the series:
* The magic of the treehouse is activated by picking up a book inside it, pointing to it and wishing to go there or see something that is there.
* While they are visiting another place, no time passes in Frog Creek, Pennsylvania where they live.
* The children will keep the treehouse a secret because no one will believe them.
The book also introduces a clue that won't be explained until later books-a gold medallion with the letter M on it.
Perhaps one of the most endearing aspects of the Magic Treehouse books are Jack and Annie themselves. They both contrast and complement each other with their differing strengths and personalities. Jack is studious and cautions; Annie is imaginative and impulsive. Jack has a good memory. Annie is empathic and good with animals. All of these strengths come into play during the book and they rescue each other from danger at various times because of their individual characteristics.
As the mother of a first grader, these books have grown on me over the past year. When I first read one I was somewhat bored by the obvious plot twists and the simple dialogue. However, the books were not written for a 36-year-old who has long been a proficient reader. They are meant to draw in the first through third grader and any emergent reader. They are meant to give them enough of a story to keep them reading from chapter-to-chapter (and all but the tenth chapter ends on a cliff-hanger) so they'll want to come back.
The series has also grown on me as I've watched my son become more attached to them. He started out having the books read to him, then listening to them on tape. Then, in a four-month period where he went from a struggling to a proficient reader, he began devouring the books. Dinosaurs Before Dark became the subject for his first diorama and his booth at the in-class book fair. For while the story is straightforward, there are lots of educational gems that can be mined. It teaches about dinosaurs, about relating to animals, and about building character.
Dinosaurs Before Dark and the Magic Treehouse series are wonderful selections for young readers. While an adult reader can whip through the book in 10 minutes or less, they provide numerous enrichment opportunities for children and stories that will stick with them.--B. Redman