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Digging in the dirt isn't just for boys.

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Paleontology: Four books geared toward future female scientists

Digging in the dirt isn’t just for boys.

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Through my years as a scientist, I’ve noticed a common thread that plagues young people’s thinking, even to this day — the notion that girls can’t be scientists. It’s perpetuated by placing male scientists of the past on pedestals, while contemporaneous women scientists don’t get the acclaim as peers whose work is equal to, if not more important than, that of these famous men.

But the times, they are a-changing. Our scientific history is being explored more lately, and women scientists who were once unknowns are now celebrated for their contributions. Within paleontology, the science closest to my heart, the primary recipient of these accolades is Mary Anning, a pioneer of the discipline known for discovering countless fossils, including the first plesiosaur. The popular tongue twister, “Sally Sells Sea Shells by the Sea Shore,” is actually about her.

Modern paleontology is slowly morphing to include more women. Many of the best paleontologists I know are women, including Dinosaur National Monument paleontologist ReBecca Hunt-Foster, the Natural History Museum of Utah’s paleontology collections manager, Carrie Levitt-Bussian, and famed coprolite (fossil poop) expert Karen Chin, from the University of Colorado in Boulder. We’re going in the right direction, but theres clearly more work to be done before we see full equality, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Even though there’s a giant range of paleontological (and dinosaur) books available to people of all ages, there are scant few kids’ books geared toward the potential future female scientist. Here are the best ones I could find to read to my own future female scientist.

The Dinosaur Expert by Margaret McNamara and G. Brian Karas

The Dinosaur Expert

The Dinosaur Expert is part of the “Mr. Tiffin’s Classroom” series of books, which I wasn’t personally familiar with before reading this one. Within it, the students of Mr. Tiffin’s class are taken on a field trip to the American Museum of Natural History (though it’s never actually identified), and readers follow one particular student, Kimmy, who has a thirst for knowledge and a love of paleontology.

Kimmy clearly knows the answers to the paleo-themed questions asked, but she thinks she won’t be taken seriously, or she’ll be laughed at because she’s a girl. It’s a rather heart-breaking account of how we often treat some things as “boy subjects” or “girl subjects.” Eventually though, with the support of her teacher, Kimmy is able to stand up and present to the class her vast knowledge of dinosaurs. A male classmate who put her down at the beginning of the story even comes around.

The end of the Dinosaur Expert also has brief synopses of real-life paleontologists, most of whom are currently working today, including Karen Chin.

Ladybug Girl’s Day Out with Grandpa by David Soman and Jacky Davis

Ladybug Girl's Day out with Grandpa

Along with The Dinosaur Expert, Ladybug Girl’s Day Out with Grandpa continues a line of books in the Ladybug Girl series. Nothing about the cover says anything about paleontology, or dinosaurs, or even science — it’s more about all the things one can see inside a natural history museum, specifically the American Museum of Natural History.

Both Dinosaur Expert and Day Out emphasize the Titanosaur exhibit at the museum, with its long neck sticking out of the room in which it’s displayed. My daughter even noticed that the dinosaurs were essentially the same. Ladybug Girl does visit the dinosaurs, but she goes into very little detail about the ones she sees, as she’s interested in every aspect of the museum.

Ladybug Girl’s Day out with Grandpa was a fun book for me, since I’m well-acquainted with the museum, but I wouldn’t say it’s a good “paleo” book for young girls. Perhaps just a fun read that happens to have dinosaurs in it.

Daring to Dig: Adventures of Women in American Paleontology by Beth Stricker, illustrated by Alana McGillis

Daring to Dig

In Daring to Dig, the contributions of 12 female paleontologists are profiled, each on two beautifully illustrated pages, with a little overarching representation of each of their lives. The text is written sort of like in a comic book, though not as clearly. While I was reading the book to my daughter, I tried to point to the parts I was reading about, but I had a hard time figuring out the order in which I should be reading the word balloons.

The author profiles a wide range of paleontologists, from micropaleontologists, to paleobotanists, and vertebrate paleontologists. Daring to Dig is a nice collection of images and a nicely laid-out series of profiles, and would be great to give a child interested in how American women have contributed to the history (and present) of paleontology, but unlike our previous two entries, it’s not a very good “bedtime story” book. 

She Found Fossils by Maria Eugenia Leone Gold and Abagael Rosemary West, illustrated by Amy J. Gardiner

Paleontology childrens book

She Found Fossils is much in the same vein as Daring to Dig, in that it’s a profile look at many different female paleontologists across time. This one is much more biographical, though. Each paleontologist is given a two-page spread with a blurb (and comic) about their life.

Unlike Daring to Dig, which focuses on its subjects’ scientific contributions, She Found Fossils is much more about the paleontologists themselves. So even though many of the women are featured in both, the information presented barely overlaps. She Found Fossils is also a much, much larger book, covering many more paleontologists, including a robust section of modern-day researchers, highlighting different subcategories of paleontology like field work, government work, and outreach.

She Found Fossils is also not presented as a story, but it does provide descriptions of many different female paleontologists from very diverse backgrounds, showing the reader that it you want to be a paleontologist, you can be one, no matter where you come from. She Found Fossils can also be found in a fully Spanish edition.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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