The girl who found the first sea reptile fossil
Mary Anning loved to scour the shores of Lyme Regis, England, where she was born in 1799, for stone sea lilies and shells. Her father had taught her how to use the tools with which she dug into the sand and scraped at the stones that fell from the cliffs. And he had taught her how to look, to look hard, for "curiosities."
One day, when she was eleven, Mary Anning spotted some markings on a wide, flat stone. She chipped at it with her hammer and chisel until the lines of a tooth emergedand then those of another tooth. Weeks of persistent effort yielded a face about four feet long. But what creature was this? Her brother called it a sea dragon.
Many months later, Mary Anning still had not unearthed what she only then learned was called a fossil. But she found out that her discovery was precious and that the painstaking effort to uncover traces of ancient life was profoundly important. Jeannine Atkins's sensitive and engaging portrait is strikingly illustrated by Michael Dooling, whose powerful paintings capture young Mary Anning's devotion to her work, and all the joy she found in it.
While Don Brown's Rare Treasure (reviewed above) took a larger view of Mary Anning's life and work, Atkins zooms in on the girl's first major discovery (at age 12), igniting the scientist's lifelong vocation. Though the narrative begins after the death of Mary's father, his words are still very much alive in her: "Don't ever stop looking, Mary." She knows there is something hidden in the cliffs of Lyme Regis, something more than just the shells and stone sea lilies that the tourists buy from her family's "Gifts and Curiosities" shop. And Mary isn't about to let the townspeople's gossip and criticism of her hammer, chisel and sturdy top hat (worn for protection from falling rocks) stop her. When she unearths a tooth embedded in a stone, Mary spends months tapping and brushing, chiseling and digging, unearthing a face almost four feet long. Atkins (A Name on the Quilt) presents a sensitive if romanticized portrait of the real-life discoverer of the first complete ichthyosaur fossil. Dooling's (George Washington) illustrations help establish the early-19th-century setting, particularly his atmospheric oil paintings of fog-enshrouded seascapes, but the portraits of Mary don't convey much emotional range. Still, the patience and dogged determination of the unconventional Mary shines through, making her story one not only for dinosaur-lovers, but for those who appreciate stories of strong girls as well. Ages 5-up. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.