Article, Author's Notes, Authors and Illustrators

The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins Illustrator's Note

Brian Selznick shares what drew him to the story, and the exciting research he conducted before working on the book.

  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5

Maybe it was because I love to build models or because I've always been fascinated by dinosaurs and cannot resist a good mystery, but from the moment I first learned about Waterhouse Hawkins, I was hooked.

I began my research at The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, where Barbara Kerley had heard there was a rare scrapbook — which Waterhouse Hawkins himself may have put together. It was filled with photographs and many of his original drawings. Apparently, a family in Virginia had owned the scrapbook for years, never knowing where it came from or how they got it. The kids in the family called it "The Dinosaur Book," and from the state of its pages, one can tell that they must have loved it very much. When the kids grew up, their parents were going to sell the book at a garage sale for fifty cents. Luckily, a neighbor spotted its possible importance, and it made its way to Philadelphia. To this day, it is the single best primary source of Waterhouse material.

In a small room in the basement, the archivist, Carol Spawn, presented me with a box that contained the scrapbook. Because it was well over a hundred years old and made of leather, the pages had been removed and placed in protective sleeves to guard against further wear. With trembling hands, I leafed through the original photographs and drawings. Many of my illustrations (as well as the red and black borders) are based on what I found in the scrapbook. The scrapbook also contained one of the original invitations to the Iguanodon dinner, which became, with a few changes, the bookplate on the front endpaper. The book jacket is inspired by the cover of the leather scrapbook, with the hope that our book would have some of the quality of the Dinosaur Book that those kids had grown up with in Virginia.

Now the real fun began. I had to go to England to see Waterhouse's dinosaurs for myself! I arrived at the Crystal Palace Park in Sydenham after a light rainfall. Nicola Bailey, a park ranger, led me through the park, into an abandoned children's zoo, through a locked gate, across a small waterfall (guarded by two very mean geese), and finally, onto Dinosaur Island, which is generally closed to the public. There they were! The dinosaurs loomed larger and more magnificent than I could have ever imagined. It was like stepping back in time.

I was given the key to the gate so I could come and go as I pleased, and for three days I sketched and photographed the dinosaurs. I even managed to climb up into the Iguanodon, where I stood amid the bricks and iron supports, dizzy with excitement. One hundred and forty-six years earlier, Waterhouse had hosted his dinner party inside the mold of this very dinosaur!

On my last day with the dinosaurs, one of the geese bit me, so I put him in the book. I finished up my time in England with research at the natural History Museum in London, where Waterhouse had also done some work. There I saw more folders filled with his original drawings and lithographs.

Everything you see in the pictures for this book is based on my research and Barbara's. The only exception is the outline for the Paleozoic museum proposed for Central Park. There are no known sketches of the exterior of the building, so I had to extrapolate from the few surviving sketches of its interior.

I had never heard about Waterhouse Hawkins before I began work on this book, but suddenly he became the center of my life. I hope you've enjoyed learning about him and his dinosaurs as much as I have.

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  • Subjects:
    Arts and Creativity, Dinosaurs
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