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8 December 2021updated 09 Dec 2021 9:46am

Joe Dunthorne: Dinosaurs and All That Rubbish is a children’s story fit for our era of climate crisis

When I first picked up this book again after many years, I remembered it only as a fun story about a chap who wants to go to the moon – with dinosaurs. But it’s so much more.

By Joe Dunthorne

The book begins with the lines: “A man stood on a hill and looked at a star. All he thought about, dreamed about, was the star.” It follows a businessman who will do anything to travel to space, even if he has to destroy his own planet to get there. When he finally reaches the faraway star – a barren planet with “no trees, no flowers, and not a blade of grass” – he starts to think that maybe Earth wasn’t that bad in the first place.

When this book was first published, it would have reminded readers of Neil Armstrong planting a flag on the moon. Almost 50 years later, we think of billionaire spaceman Jeff Bezos who – having mutilated his home planet in order to build himself a rocket – has returned from space with the revelation that he likes the look of Earth after all. At Cop26, Bezos gave a speech in which he said: “Looking back at Earth from up there the atmosphere seems so thin, the world so finite and so fragile.” All that needs to happen now is the part of the story where the narrative shifts from one very rich man’s modest epiphany to a group of hard-line environmentalist dinosaurs who burst out of the ground in order to rewild the Earth, returning it to a verdant paradise through a process of cracking up the motorways by dancing on them and joyfully tossing cars into volcanoes.

My parents read this book to me so many times when I was young that I feel pretty certain I could redraw every panel. Each image was burned into my brain. Now I’m reading it with my son I get a feeling of déjà vu so strong it verges on time travel. As I turn the pages, I feel that I am back in my attic room, 35 years ago, watching my dad turn the same pages. And yet, while the illustrations have stayed with me, the story has not. When I first picked up this book again after many years, I remembered it only as a fun story about a chap who wants to go to the moon – but with dinosaurs for some reason. In other words, my brain had edited out the awkward second half of the book where it is revealed that our love of stories where men fulfil their fantasies at a huge cost to everyone else is exactly the reason our planet is f*****d.

In his book How To Tell a Story To Save the World, the novelist Toby Litt has written that “the most environmentally degrading force in existence is Heroism”. He argues that, in the age of climate crisis, writers should escape the selfishness of the hero’s journey and tell stories about the power of collective action – and I think he’s right. But reading this book has made me aware of the scale of that challenge, how hardwired we are to get behind a single protagonist, even when that protagonist is patently evil, even when the story is trying to celebrate a group of eco-terrorist dinosaurs. I hoped that my four-year-old son might have understood the book’s true significance but when I asked him to describe the story he seemed unsure. When I pressed him, he said, “Is it about the planet being a mess because dinosaurs poo all over it?” Perhaps my expectation that we could all be saved by one book – one heroic, perfectly told story – was also part of the same problem. What we really need is a whole library of new stories.

On the final page, the businessman rides on a dinosaur’s back through the jungle where he meets “the birds and the cats and the mice and the mammoths, the serpents, the dodos and the apes” and they all agree that “this time the earth belongs to everyone”. And to give credit to my son, this was one part of the story that he could quote from. “They share the Earth because it is beautiful,” he said. “And they all yell, ‘Everyone! Yes, everyone!’”

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Dinosaurs and All That Rubbish by Michael Foreman (1972)

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This article is part of our “The children’s books that shaped us” series. Read more reflections from our writers here.