Kate Walker's Reviews > Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn't Know She Was Extinct

Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn't Know She Was Extinct by Mo Willems
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's review
Oct 10, 2011

did not like it
bookshelves: kids

If you want to teach your children that speaking the truth is only for dour, humorless little know-it-alls, then this is the book for you. The message of this book is: Lighten up! Facts and fossil records are so boring. Have a cookie! The stupidity of the premise is staggering. And it alarms me that this is the sort of book we hold up as the best of our time. The New York Times calls the author, “The biggest talent to emerge in children’s books in the 00s,” This says such terrible things about the state of contemporary children’s lit, the state of criticism, and the future of literacy in this country that I am almost at a loss for words. But because I do have a stake in the type and quality of children’s books that are published, I’m taking on the unpleasant duty of speaking out about this terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad book.

To start with, this is a cheap rip-off on the all-time classic, “Danny and the Dinosaur” by Syd Hoff. In that story, a little boy goes to the Museum of Natural History where he admires the enormous dinosaur replicas and muses wistfully that it would be fun to play with a real dinosaur. When, to Danny’s astonishment and delight, the dinosaur springs to life, it is very clear that we are entering the realm of fantasy. Simple, straightforward and satisfying wish fulfillment.

With “Edwina,” we get a much more muddled tale. Just as in “Danny and the Dinosaur,” Edwina jaunts about town, helping out wherever she can. But to obscure the derivative nature of the story, we get some very ill considered variations on the original. Edwina the dinosaur doesn’t know she is extinct. Take a moment to contemplate the ontological nightmare this presents. She exists, as evidenced by the cookies she bakes, the light bulbs she screws in, and the little old ladies she safely transports across busy streets. And yet, despite these very literal, concrete actions, she is, as every school child knows, extinct. So, to review: she exists and she does not exist, simultaneously. This is fine for late-night bull sessions in your freshman dorm, but for children’s literature, this is, frankly, perverse. This is what happens when children’s book authors prize their own cheeky cleverness above all. This is a book which values novelty over substance, gimmicks over quality, fruitcake whimsy over integrity.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with having an animal or a dinosaur or a magic dragon drop into the real world in a children’s story. That’s actually a fine way for kids to learn about life, since imaginary and anthropomorphized animals are easily relatable. But unlike “Danny and the Dinosaur” that uses the talking dino device to take children through familiar scenes they can identify with, while supporting early reading skills, Edwina presents an impossible philosophical puzzle, for which the only escape is madness.

Reginald Von Hoobie Doobie, our desperate, doomed antagonist, nearly kills himself trying to explain the fact that the town is in the grips of a mass delusion. He takes the initiative to research, write, print and distribute a newspaper detailing the facts of evolution and extinction, but nobody cares. The townspeople, that stupid, happy lot, make boat hats and airplanes out of the papers. Reginald is pictured as a scowling figure, not someone children would positively identify with. Aspiring paleontologists of the world take note. Pack it in, kid. Get with the bliss ninny program or pay the price. You’ll have no friends. Your teachers will hate you. And you’ll be condemned to a wretched, tortured existence until you learn to march in step with the rest of the flat-earthers. It is a twisted premise that appeals, perhaps, to been-there-done-that grown-ups who have tired of straightforward concepts and themes. But this is a book for children! Why should the children suffer for our own jaded ways? Why?

Exhausted and spent, poor Reginald Von Hoobie Doobie finds himself alone in a bleak existential wasteland. He collapses in a heap of angry, despairing sobs. This is the beginning of his conversion experience. Reginald cries out to an empty universe, “WHY WON’T ANYONE LISTEN TO ME!?” and, who hears his lonely howl? Why, the talking dinosaur, of course! In your darkest hour, know that you are not alone. Edwina is there for you! She hears you crying in the night and she cares. If this were an earnest conversion experience, the book would have some meaning. If it were a straight parody of a conversion experience it might be the Children's New Atheist Bible. But it is neither. And both. It’s a muddled, maddening mess.

Reginald pours his heart out, he tells Edwina how and why it is that she doesn’t exist. She hears his arguments but is deaf to reason. She doesn’t care that she does not exist and at this point, neither does Reginald. Shockingly, this is the conclusion of the book. Reginald shucks off his cumbersome learning and follows Edwina through the Edwina-shaped hole she’s blasted through the schoolhouse wall.

Beyond the highly problematic and confusing thematic elements, we have a failure of an even more fundamental nature. Part of what makes “Danny and the Dinosaur” such an essential book and Edwina such a lousy one is word choice. “Danny and the Dinosaur” employs short, easy to sound out words that appear with high frequency in other early readers. Clear pictures offer important context clues, which further assist emerging readers. It is a book that teaches reading. It is a book that builds confidence. It is entertaining, delightful and educational.

Edwina lacks that kind of deliberate word choice. This book makes no attempt to select words with the high frequency phonemes and digraphs that children must master in order to begin reading. Learning smaller words and units of words is the foundation on which to build the ability to read longer words. This book does little to improve reading skills beyond reinforcing sub-basic skills such as turning pages, reading front to back and such. Those sub-basic concepts are best learned when children are very little with sturdy cardboard books, not expensive, glossy tomes like this.

Edwina apes a vague concept of what constitutes a decent children’s book by limiting the number of words on each page. Unfortunately, reducing the amount of text on each page doesn’t cut it. Leaving giant, empty spaces on each page isn’t minimalist. It’s lazy. The entire book has a very sketchy, tossed off quality that I find a little offensive in a hardbound twenty-dollar book. The glorified stick figures with their “happy” “sad” “worried” and “mad” faces are well within the artistic capability of any eight year old with a marker. The only possible benefit of such simplistic, two-dimensional drawings is that they might inspire an enterprising eight-year-old artist to do better. They should be encouraged to do so. They could hardly do worse.

Another disappointing aspect of this book is the crude attempt at making the traditionally boy-centric dinosaur obsession more appealing to girls by imbuing the character with the most stereotypical, outdated idea of what it means to be female. We know Edwina is female from her garishly painted toenails, her habit of baking cookies, and her flighty relationship with reality. Do you see the problem here? Worst of all, as the conclusion of the book demonstrates, she doesn’t care about the scientific reality that the mean boy keeps trying to explain. What a crappy role model for girls! What a cynical appropriation of children’s interest in dinosaurs. What a waste of paper!

In addition to “Danny and the Dinosaur,” I recommend the “How do Dinosaurs Learn” series. It is a far superior choice for anthropomorphized dinosaur fun. These books teach kids appropriate behavior in a humorous way. The dinosaurs are not vague, pseudo-species, but real dinosaurs with real names that depict typical childhood behaviors, both good and bad. Those are books that encourage children to look at themselves. “Edwina the Dinosaur Who Doesn’t Know She is Extinct” directs our attention to the author and his antics while imparting nothing of value to the children for whom this book is marketed. I feel like Reginald Von Hoobie Doobie trying to talk sense to the masses of people who’ve bought into this cult of children’s book author celebrity. If only I could internalize the core message of this book: Nothing matters! Tra La La! Have a cookie!

Update: Five year old would not leave the library until we had checked out a handful of Mo Willems books from the Piggie series. He read them to himself on the ride home, giggling all the way. No accounting for taste!
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Comments (showing 1-9)

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message 9: by Pam (new)

Pam This is what happens when grandma takes the word of the New York Times, orders from Amazon and doesn't read the book herself. Thanks for taking the time to let others know.

message 8: by Kate (new) - rated it 1 star

Kate Walker Hi Mom, I tried to throw "poor Mo Willems" a bone, but I couldn't do it. So, I deleted the "disconcertingly overrated author" line and just kept the focus on this one book. I don't think I have the emotional fortitude to write about the author's entire oeuvre. This was cathartic, but I think I'm done now. I need to start my essay on The Berenstain Bears, our all-time favs. Wolfie says he wants "The Berenstain Bears and the Bad Dream." If you wanted to get that for Christmas I know he would be very happy. Thank you for taking the time to read the review. I appreciate it! :)

message 7: by Pam (new)

Pam Bears and Bad Dream a done deal!!

message 6: by Eva (new)

Eva Leger I love your review! I don't know if I agree with everything you said but I love how you explained everything. And I'm certainly thinking more about it now.
Oh, and you have the collect Mom ever! I wish MY Mom as on GR! :)

message 5: by Eva (new)

Eva Leger *coolest* - Actually, most times I can spell. My spellcheck apparently has trouble at times.

Matthew Eisenberg I love Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn't Know She Was Extinct. I also love your review of it. It's extremely well written, both in language and argument. Your review didn't alter my opinion of the book, but it was certainly thought-provoking. Here's my thought---it's simply a fun read. No more, no less. I take responsibility for teaching my sons the values and perspectives I expect them to possess. Some books do reinforce and support said values and perspectives, and that is always nice. But we can read other books for entertainment and entertainment alone, and so doing enjoy them greatly. Edwina is just such a book. I am very happy to agree to disagree, and very happy to have discovered a reviewer as passionate and clear-thinking as you.

message 3: by Wendy (new)

Wendy Reese We have not read this book, but most likely will due to my sons love for dinosaurs and Mo Willems books. I respect your interpretation of this book. I also respect your 5 year olds stance at refusing to leave with out a handful of the Gerald & Piggie series. Your child's as well as my child's amusement, enjoyment, and giggles in response to these books may be the reason The New York Times calls the author, “The biggest talent to emerge in children’s books in the 00s". I will keep your review in mind when we read this, but will also remember it was written with a young child as the target audience. I appreciate any author that encourages children to read & love books. Again, I do appreciate your honesty and will consider it when selecting this for my children. Meanwhile, I think we'll just have a cookie(•;

message 2: by Joseph (new)

Joseph Silin great article. where can i read more of your writing?

message 1: by Amanda (new)

Amanda You don't think you can turn this around to kind of a "you don't need to say hurtful things" angle? I mean, he's saying dinosaurs are extinct but in the context of the story, that is untrue and he just wants to be right/ possibly hurt a creature who is, by all accounts, very nice to everyone else. If she wasn't really a dinosaur I would get your point, but obviously dinos aren't extinct because she still exists (in the story). I'm teaching this book this week and I don't intend the kids to learn that the truth is bad -- because in context, it is not the truth here!

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