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The Griffin and the Dinosaur

The Griffin and the Dinosaur: How Adrienne Mayor Discovered a Fascinating Link Between Myth and Science
Written by Marc Aronson, with Adrienne Mayor
Published by National Geographic, 2014
ISBN 978-1-4263-1108-6
Grades 5-8
Book Review
If your students root for Gryffindor, dream of attending Camp Half Blood, or find themselves reaching into the backs of their closets with the hopes of finding a lamppost in the snow, this book is for them. If your students are not the least bit interested in fantasy fiction and would rather plunge themselves into data-driven nonfiction or historical fiction, this book is for them, too. It is rare that a book comes along for the middle school reader that offers so many points of entry. In his latest book, written with researcher Adrienne Mayor, Marc Aronson explores the connection between ancient fossils and ancient stories. Specifically, how Mayor uncovered fossil evidence that serves as a connection between the mythological griffin and the ancient stories and artwork in which it appears. As he did previously in Skull in the Rock (2012), Aronson starts with Mayor’s childhood fascinations, making connections between his readers and his subject, demonstrating to adolescents that who they are now matters. As he has in his other books for National Geographic, Aronson presents the reader with the research and the researcher, modeling what Myra Zarnowski has termed “the literature of inquiry.” Readers see how research questions take shape, change shape, get answered, and generate new questions. Readers also witness how a professional life can take shape, not just in spite of challenges, but because of challenges. This book is ideal for middle school teams planning interdisciplinary explorations, for it sits at the intersection of fantasy fiction and nonfiction, myth and reality, literature and science, and history, culture, and art.
Teaching Ideas & Invitations
  • Charting Greek Mythology and Mythological Creatures. After reading The Griffin and the Dinosaur, have students read a range of Greek myths, drawing on the print and digital resources listed below. Or, have students specialize in small groups by reading multiple versions of several myths and stories that share the same mythological creature (the details of chapter seven will assist you). Next, have students read and research about the creature(s) featured in the stories, using the print and digital resources listed below as well as those listed in the back of the book, and create a class chart that organizes Greek myths by the fantastical creatures within them and the origins of those creatures based on research such as Adrienne’s. 
  • Picturing Griffins Over Time.With the help of your school librarian, have students research images of the griffin in art over time. What parts of the world feature griffins in their artwork? How were griffins depicted in the art of the ancient world versus the medieval world? How are griffins portrayed visually in fantasy fiction and movies today? Have students amass as many images as possible, and then compare and contrast the changing or not-so-changing representations. Museum websites will be particularly valuable, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The British Museum, and The Louvre.
  • Mythological Creatures and Ancient Art. Take the concept of art as research to a broader level by having students examine a range of mythological creatures found in the art work of ancient people from around the world. Small groups could each be assigned an ancient culture to research. Your local art museum might have examples of art work from ancient cultures around the world, and you can use a field trip to research the work up close. If not, draw upon the digital collections of large art museums, such as the ones listed above. What mythological creatures do students see repeatedly displayed in art from their culture? How are the representations similar and different from one another? You should have the students share their findings with one another. Which creatures appear across different cultures and/or different time periods?
  • Geomythology and Your Neck of the Woods. After reading The Griffin and the Dinosaur, use the book as a tool to explore your own area. Who are the ancient peoples of your part of the world? What natural resources surround your school? Are you located near mountains or plains, the ocean or the desert? How has the geology of your area shaped the stories that emerge from the past? First, have your students read the Guardian story on geomythology from 2005, to introduce this particular “lens.” Next, immerse students in a study of myths and legends from your region. Have the students dissect these stories. What do they have in common? How are the landscape and natural resources featured? Next, have them consider connections between the past and present. How do the stories of the past and the local landscape inform the present? Make sure to bring someone in from your local or state geological division, or a professor or doctoral student from the geology department of a local university, to help you and your students piece together possible clues.
  • Seeing Science at Work: Conduct a simultaneous author and genre study with your students. Place students in book clubs/literature circles, in which they explore Aronson’s nonfiction books with National Geographic: Ain’t Nothing But a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry, If Stones Could Speak: Unlocking the Secrets of Stonehenge, The Skull in the Rock: How a Scientist, a Boy, and Google Earth Open A New Window on Human Origins, and The Griffin and the Dinosaur: How Adrienne Mayor Discovered a Fascinating Link Between Myth and Science. You might choose to group students by the book; or, you might choose to have students in groups of four, each reading a different book. Either way, have students consider the following as they read (in your own kid-friendly language): How is the book organized? How are the researchers used as a lens to discuss the research itself? How are questions used as catalyst for the writing? How does the author make connections across the book? How is the reader addressed directly and why? Reading Myra Zarnowki’s commentary on the book may help you shape your thinking further. A follow-up to this project could be that students in small groups interview local scientists about their childhood and their current research, and using Aronson’s books as a model, they co-author texts together on cutting-edge research that is being conducted near your community. For additional ideas, see the Classroom Bookshelf entry on The Skull in the Rock.
  • Adrienne’s Other Research. This book features Adrienne’s specific research on the scientific origins of the griffin. But she has conducted research all over the world on other fantastical creatures as well. This research is introduced in chapter eight, “Stories, Stories, Everywhere.” Have your students embark on a quest to find out more about this other research. You could divide students up by the different continents, or by a single research project. This is another great project to work on with your school librarian.
  • Fossils and Our Emotions. Have students listen to the April 2014 NPR story about the most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil that was recently sent from the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Ask students to consider the emotional subtext of this short story. Why do the people in Bozeman care so much about this dinosaur fossil? Why do the researchers? Why should we? Why is this fossil a national treasure? How does Adrienne’s work help us to also better understand our physical past and present and our emotional connection to it all?
  • Creating New Myths. Follow the format for a typical genre study, but with a research twist! Using the digital and print resources listed below, have students read a range of ancient myths that feature fantastical creatures. These myths will serve as mentor texts for student writing. Next, have students read The Griffin and the Dinosaur. Once students have finished the book, or even while you are reading it, have them begin to research a particular dinosaur discovery/fossil find from somewhere in the world, again drawing from the print and digital resources below. What do the bones tell us? What shape was the dinosaur or prehistoric animal? How did it eat? How was it adapted to do so? Now, have students start to think about what ancient people in that region of the world may have thought about those bones if/when they encountered them. Have students research the culture and belief systems of ancient people from that region, and then blend what they know about the civilization and what they know about the dinosaur/prehistoric animal with what they learned from Adrienne’s way of seeing the world. Have students write fictional myths that bring both sets of research together. For each myth, have students create an original drawing, painting, or model of the unique fantastical creature they have invented for their myth.
Further Explorations
Marc Aronson’s Website
Adrienne’s Research
“Greek Myths Not Necessarily Mythical,” The New York Times, July 2000
Wonders and Marvels (Adrienne contributes)
Myra Zarnowksi on The Griffin and the Dinosaur
(NOTE: Mary Ann blogs with both Myra and Marc Aronson on the “Uncommon Corps” blog)
“Ancient Legends Give an Early Warning to Modern Disasters,” The Guardian, December 2005
Dinosaur Research
See Classroom Bookshelf Entry on Barnum’s Bones for links to Dinosaur resources:
“T Rex to Reveal Itself at the Smithsonian, NPR, April 2014
Dinosaur Research, University of Alberta, Canada
Myths about Dinosaurs
Dinosaur Database, Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, MT
Dinosaur Research, Science Daily
Mythical Creatures
“Mythic Creatures” Exhibit, American Museum of Natural History, 2007
“Fantastic Creatures” Exhibit, British Museum
Sur La Lune Fairy Tales
Delano, M.F. (2007). Sea monsters: A prehistoric adventure. Washington, DC.: National Geographic.
Fern, T. (2012). Barnum’s bones: How Barnum Brown discovered the most famous dinosaur in the world. Ill. by B. Kulikov. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.
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.
Napoli, D. J., Balit, C. (2011). Treasury of Greek mythology: Classic stories of gods, goddesses, heroes & monsters. Washington, DC.: National Geographic.
Philip, N. (2011). Mythology. [Eyewitness series]. New York: DK Publishing.
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.