Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews
Mary Anning's Curiosity
Illustrator: Melissa Castrillon
For ages 8 to 10
Groundwood Books, 2017 ISBN: 978-1554988983
Ever since she was five years old, Mary Anning has gone out with her father to look for fossils around the cliffs near her home in Lyme Regis. The rock in the cliffs is made up of friable layers that crumble easily. After storms in particular the base of the cliffs and the beach offer up all kinds of treasures that Mary’s father can sell to tourists.
Though he is a carpenter by trade, Mary’s father loves seeking out “curiosities,” and he has passed his love of the hunt, and his interest in the fossils that he finds, on to his young daughter. On her eighth birthday Mary’s father gives her a rock hammer as a gift and she is all ready to go out fossil hunting with her father and older brother Joe when Mary’s mother reminds her that today she has to attend school. Mary’s mother wants more for her daughter; she wants Mary to have a more secure life, one that does not include having to worry about where the rent money is going to come from.
When she is just eleven, Mary’s father has a bad fall on the cliffs and for the rest of his life he is an invalid. The family struggles to get by as best they can and when Pa eventually dies in 1810 Ma, Mary, and her brother Joe find out that Pa has left them with big debts that they cannot pay. Mary stops going to school and starts working full time. She hunts for fossils always hoping that she will find something big and exciting; something that she will be able to sell so that she can free her mother from the fear of being sent to debtor’s prison.
Then, one day, Joe and Mary are looking for curiosities on the beach when Joe sees what looks like an eye socket peering out from the cliff face. Could this be the eye of the giant crocodile that Pa spent so much time looking for? He always dreamed that he would be the one to find the mythical crocodile, and now Mary and Joe have found it. Carefully Joe and Mary work on the head of the beast, always keeping an eye out for their rival, Captain Cury, who would dearly love to claim such a find for himself.
Working as quickly, carefully, and secretly as they can, Mary and Joe excavate the skull of the crocodile. With the help of their friend, Miss Philpot, they are able to remove it from the cliff and get it back to their shop. Mary never imagines that this discovery is just the first of a long list of remarkable fossil finds that she will have.
Mary Anning’s interest in fossils, and her willingness to learn about the creatures whose remains she was finding, was remarkable. She lived in an age when a true understanding of what fossils were was still in its infancy, and at a time when it was felt that women should not pursue matters of scientific interest. Thankfully, Mary did not let people put her off, and her discoveries had a significant impact on the advancement of paleontology and evolutionary theory.
This wonderful work of historical fiction brings Mary Anning to life, allowing young readers to understand what a unique person she was. The book serves as a tribute to a young girl and woman who gave the world the precious gift of new discoveries and knowledge.