The Classroom Bookshelf
Inside The Classroom Bookshelf

Barnum’s Bones


Barnum’s Bones: How Barnum Brown Discovered the Most Famous Dinosaur in the World
Margaret Ferguson Books, Farrar Straus Giroux
ISBN: 978-0-374-30516-1
Written by Tracey Fern
Illustrated by Boris Kulikov
Grades 3-8

Book Review

“Barnum collected more dinosaur bones than anyone on earth.” In fact, before he started working for the famous American Museum of Natural History in New York City, it did not have “a single dinosaur specimen.” By the time Barnum Brown died in 1963, after working for the museum for over sixty-five years, “it had the largest collection of dinosaur bones in the world. Barnum had unearthed most of these himself.” In this picture book biography of the world’s most prolific dinosaur fossil hunter to date, Tracey Fern focuses on Brown’s discovery of the first partial Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil ever found, and his quest to find a complete skeleton to reveal this new dinosaur to the world. The composite skeleton of these two fossils still stands in the American Museum of Natural History today. Readers are first introduced to Barnum as a child, and thus, a connection is made between childhood dreams and adult careers. This book prompts further inquiry at every turn, as Fern slyly includes scintillating tidbits about Brown’s globe-trotting adventures. The book is masterfully packaged, with particular attention to the action in the gutter between the pages, and how it reinforces linear movement, relationships, and cause and effect within the narrative. Engaging writing, fascinating content, and thought-provoking watercolor illustrations make this book rich for a variety of classroom explorations in language arts, science, and social studies.
Teaching Ideas: Classroom Invitations
Grades 3-8
Who were Barnum Brown and Waterhouse Hawkins? Compare and contrast Barnum’s Bones with Barbara Kerley’s The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins in a Duet Model (click here for a link to the definition of this pairing model). Both men worked in New York in the 19th century in the field of dinosaur research. How does each author provide a balance between each man’s life story and the content of his work? What are the similarities and differences between these two men?
More of Barnum Brown. Have students further explore the life of Barnum Brown, both to better understand his legacy as well as the craft of writing biography. Tracey Fern provides clues, both in the narration (“despite being shipwrecked and nearly eaten by a mountain lion”) and the author’s note (“a run-in with a giant spider in India, a fall into a volcanic crater in New Mexico”) that entice readers. Have students track down these stories from Brown’s life (use the Selected Bibliography and Author’s Notes for research sources) and write and illustrate their own nonfiction picture books about these specific adventures.
Imagining and Illustrating Dinosaurs. What did dinosaurs look like on the outside? Will we ever know for sure? How have they been illustrated in the past? How have illustrations changed over time? After reading Barnum’s Bones, read aloud The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins with your students. How did Waterhouse Hawkins, who  worked for the American Museum of Natural History at its inception, create his dinosaur models? In what ways were they wrong? Next, have students compare and contrast illustrations of dinosaurs in the books below, and read any available illustrator’s notes. Have them sort representations on a continuum of realistic to unrealistic.
Visual Literacy and the Page “Gutter.” After students have read through Barnum’s Bones once, have them go back again and note what happens in the “gutter” between the two pages of every two page spread. How have the illustrator and book designer used the gutter to help readers understand what is happening on each of the two pages, and the relationship between the pages within the narrative? Students might want to compare and contrast this with other picture book biographies.
Answering Barnum Brown’s Questions. In 1908, Barnum Brown still had lots of questions about the Tyrannosaurus Rex. As Tracey Fern notes, he wondered, “What exactly did it look like? What did it eat? How did it walk?” What do we know about T. Rex at this point in the time? Have students answer these questions about T. Rex or other dinosaurs in small groups, and have them share their knowledge with one another through a multimedia presentation, a nonfiction picture book, a collection of poems, etc.
Excavating Dinosaurs. Have students explore some of the websites below to learn as much as they can about current and past practices for excavating dinosaur fossils. Be sure to watch the 1908 movie clips of Earl Douglas, excavating in Utah, at  Have students develop questions about current and past practices, and have a professor from a local university visit the class to answer them. If you have no local experts, try a Skype session with your closest university or museum.
Presenting Dinosaurs to the Public. Compare and contrast the ways that museums have changed their presentation of dinosaur fossils over the years. Many of the museum websites listed below discuss changes in their presentation of fossils based on new research. There are virtual tours of museum halls, as well as curator podcasts, so you can conduct virtual field trips!  Explore archival photographs on the websites, when available, to compare and contrast the approaches.
Kansas Underwater? In the book, Barnum Brown finds fossils of ancient sea creatures on his family’s Kansas farm. These fossils were “millions of years” old, from a time when Kansas was “at the bottom of a shallow, swirling sea.” If landlocked Kansas was once a sea, what was your area of the country like millions of years ago? Use this book as a launch into the geological history of your region. What fossils have been found? What creatures lived there? Why did they go away, and when? What do sciences know and what do they hope to find out about your area millions of years ago? Have students conduct research, interview experts, and write or record their findings to share with the community.
Grades 6-8
Rivalry vs. Cooperation. The author lets us know that Barnum Brown had “rivals at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.” The rivalry fueled his desire to travel the world and locate a new form of dinosaur; it also fueled his boss at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. After reading Barnum’s Bones, read Dinosaur Mountain, by Deborah Kogen Ray, about Brown’s rival at the Carnegie, Earl Douglas. Compare and contrast how the rivalry is depicted in each book. What is the nature of rivalry in the field of science? To what extent are scientists still rivals in their research? To what extent do scientists at different universities and museums now cooperate with one another? Have students interview, either through Skype or classroom visits, scientists in different fields, working for universities, museums, and for-profit companies. Look for evidence of rivalry and competition on museum websites. Compare and contrast their findings. You might find our entry on Skull in the Rock, and Lee Berger’s approach to collaboration, interesting in this exploration.
What Makes a Good Dinosaur Book? Have your students read the article, “Beyond Barney: What Makes a Good Dinosaur Book?” also linked below. Next, in small groups, have them read some of the books included in the article, as well as new ones written since 2007, including Barnum’s Bones. Do they agree or disagree with the author’s application of her own criteria? How do they apply her criteria to the new books? To help students grapple with the criteria, you might want to create a graphic organizer with guiding questions. For the purpose of clarity, it may be helpful to include several books that clearly violate the criteria for a good book, to make the abstract concrete. Have students then tease out some lessons from this that they can apply to their nonfiction writing in general, and science-based nonfiction in particular.
Critical Literacy
Whose Bones? In Barnum’s Bones, Barnum Brown travels to the American West and South America in search of dinosaur fossils to bring back to New York. If your students read other dinosaur books, your students might locate where else dinosaur bones have been excavated, and where they are now on display. Is this fair? Should dinosaur skeletons be in museums in New York City or Washington, D.C. if they were discovered in Wyoming? Should books about dinosaur research, past and present, be examining this question? Using the Further Explorations section below, have students map out where dinosaur bones were found in the United States and where they are now on display. Have students review digital newspaper databases for information on the latest dinosaur discoveries, and who is doing the research, to bring their research up-to-date. As anyone ever protested the removal of dinosaur bones to another state or country? What recommendations do students make? Where do the dinosaur fossils belong?
Further Explorations
Online Resources
Tracy Fern’s Official Website
Boris Kulikov’s Official Website
American Museum of Natural History
Curator Podcasts, American Museum of Natural History
Wyoming Dinosaur Museum & Dig Site
“What Makes a Good Dinosaur Book? From The Horn Book Magazine
Dinosaurs, the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian
Virtual Dinosaur Dig, the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian
Paleo Lab, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh
Movie Clips from 1908 Utah (Dinosaur Mountain) Dig
Dinosaurs, Discovery Channel
Prehistoric Animals, Dinosaurs, National Geographic
“Dinosaur Shocker,” Smithsonian Magazine, 2006
NPR Story, “Bone to Pick: First T-Rex Skeleton Complete at Last,” September 2011
Dinosaur State Park, Connecticut
Dinosaur Hall, Natural History Museum, Los Angeles County
Arnold, C. (2009). Global warming and the dinosaurs. New York: Clarion.
Bishop, N. (2000). Digging for Bird-Dinosaurs: An expedition to Madagascar. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Branley, F. M. (1989). What happened to the dinosaurs?[Let’s Read and Find Out series]. Illus. by M. Simont. New York: Harper Collins.
Brown, C.L. (2006). The day the dinosaurs died. [I Can Read series]. llus. by P. Wilson New York: HarperCollins.
Floca, B. (2000). Dinosaurs at the ends of the Earth: The story of the Central Asiatic Expeditions. London: Jackson/DK Ink.
Hartland, J. (2011). How the dinosaur got to the museum. Maplewood, NJ: Blue Apple Books.
Henderson, D. (2000). Asteroid impact. New York: Dial.
Jenkins, S. (2005). Prehistoric actual size. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Judge, L. (2010). Born to be giants: How baby dinosaurs grew up to rule the world. New York: Roaring Brook/Flashpoint.
Kerley, B. (2001). The dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins: An illuminating history of Mr. Waterhouse Hawkins, artist and lecturer. Ill. by B. Selznick. New York: Scholastic.
Kudlinski, K. (2005). Boy, were we wrong about dinosaurs!Illus. by S. D. Schindler. New York:  Dutton.
Markle, S. (2000). Outside and inside dinosaurs. New York: Atheneum.
Ray, D.K. (2010). Dinosaur mountain: Digging into the Jurassic Age. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux. 
Sabuda, R., Reinhart, M. (2005). Encyclopedia prehistorica: Dinosaurs. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick.
Mary Ann Cappiello About Mary Ann Cappiello

Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.