Are you looking for a middle-grade novel with dinosaurs, time-travel, eco-responsibility, and Shakespeare for children? If so, The Last Synapsid by Timothy Mason may be what you are looking for!
Summary: The Last Synapsid
Life in Faith, Colorado is fairly uneventful for best friends Rob and Phoebe. That is, until one day they come across a prehistoric creature so old, he makes dinosaurs look modern—a plant-eating synapsid they affectionately dub ‘Sid.’ Sid’s on an epic journey through time . . . and he needs Rob and Phoebe’s help! Another synapsid—an aptly-named Gorgon, and much less amiable than the kind-hearted Sid—has stumbled into the modern era via a ‘time snag’ and refuses to return to his native time. If this carnivorous monster remains in the present, the course of evolution will be changed forever, and humankind (and all other mammals) will never come into existence. Meanwhile, a mysterious stranger by the name of Jenkins has been lurking around town, and he seems bound and determined to use the synapsids’ time-traveling abilities for his own selfish ends—no matter the cost…
The book includes a few helpful illustrations (Rob is a budding artist, and he carefully documents the various creatures they meet on their adventures), but by and large the book relies on verbal descriptions to depict the fantastic animals and events Rob and Phoebe encounter.
Subjective Appeal: Dinosaurs and Time Travel!
Describing the subjective appeal of a book about prehistoric creatures seems almost tautological. Dinosaurs are inherently appealing to young minds. Of course, synapsids aren’t technically dinosaurs (they’re their ancestors), but the appeal is still there—exotic, never-before-seen beasts from the distant past. And they even talk (a vast improvement over your run-of-the-mill dinosaur, in my opinion). There are plenty of other animals, too—mountain lions and deer and woolly mammoths and horses and dogs . . . it’s an animal lover’s delight. Rob and Phoebe (and their parents) clearly love animals, and this story will likely resonate with young readers who share that quality.
As if talking (almost) dinosaurs weren’t enough, the kids also get to travel through time on multiple occasions. Whether it’s visiting a frontier mining town at the turn of the century or taking in a pre-human mountain vista or a prehistoric landscape strewn with volcanoes, Rob and Phoebe (and friends) get more than their fill of history come alive.
One reservation: The writing is a bit simplistic. However, this may be appropriate given the lower age range targeted by the book—kids should definitely be able to read this one on their own. Fortunately, it’s still a fun story that they’ll enjoy, even if the writing doesn’t sparkle. In fact, the combination of simple writing with an interesting story might make it a good “Hi-Lo” book, i.e., a book that is highly interesting but that is appropriate for reluctant readers with reading abilities lower than normal.
Developmental Value: Self-Sacrifice, Eco-Responsibility, and Shakespeare for Children
The entire book is filled with self-sacrifice. Sid risks his life traveling through time so that future generations can live. Rob and Phoebe are willing to help Sid in his quest to save all of human- (and mammal-) kind, even at the cost of their own futures. At one point, the duo appears to be facing certain death, but still they press on, determined to complete the task at hand. This self-sacrifice is contrasted sharply with both the greedy opportunism of Jenkins, who is willing to sacrifice others for his own gain, and with the Gorgon’s own determination to stay in the modern era regardless of the effect on others. Indeed, the Gorgon uses humanity’s selfishness to justify his own, arguing that humankind is so selfish that it does not deserve to evolve at all. Only when he witnesses humans genuinely caring for others is he finally convinced to return so that the human race will come to be.
It is hardly surprising that a book relying so heavily on evolution would also incorporate the importance of eco-responsibility. The synapsids’ world is failing in some unspecified way; Sid encourages the children to preserve their own world in order to avoid such a tragedy. The book freely acknowledges that humans have not been good to the planet; the pre-human times visited boast cleaner air, purer water, and more vibrant plant and animal life. Then, too, the nature of the self-sacrifice that forms the heart of the story is necessarily environmental: the Gorgon must act for the benefit of future generations. He must make a sacrifice today in order to preserve tomorrow—an idea central to environmentalism. However, the book does not take an extreme position on the issue. After all, Faith is a mining town, and there is nary a hint of judgment for this backbone of the town’s economy.
*A side note on the issue of evolution: It is central to the book’s conflict (the Gorgon must return so that mammals, and eventually humans, will evolve), but parents who adhere to another theory of origins can, I think, navigate these waters with relative ease. The underlying lessons here are morally sound, independent of any debate over science or religion. Evolution, like time-traveling prehistoric creatures, can be accepted as a premise for purposes of the story regardless of the reader’s real world beliefs. It is fiction, after all, and presented as such.
If you thought that 8-year-olds were too young for Shakespeare, think again! Excerpts from The Tempest are sprinkled all throughout the climax of the book. Rob and Phoebe face off against the Gorgon during a community production of the Shakespearean play, which the Gorgon, in all his travels, has learned by heart. The Gorgon sees himself as Caliban, manipulated and mistreated by the selfish Jenkins, his Prospero. Indeed, it is his love for Shakespeare that tempts him to stay in the present day, and his love of Shakespeare contributes to his decision to return home (so that humans—including Shakespeare—will one day exist). This is an extremely appealing introduction to the Bard, particularly for young men: Shakespeare is not just long words and romance and tragedy—it has monsters! And (pre)dinosaurs love it! While this book is no guarantee that young readers will develop a taste for Renaissance plays, it should at least whet a few appetites.
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