[This article is adapted from a post I originally wrote for I.N.K. (Interesting Nonfiction for Kids.]
While working on a My Teacher is a Dinosaur, I went on the hunt for good reference material. Though there are zillions of books on the multitudes of fabulous dinosaurs, it was more difficult to find information about the myriad of other intriguing prehistoric critters from cyanobacteria to giant sea scorpions to Diictodon (“the gopher of the Permian,” a reptile that lived in burrows) to Ambulocetus (“the walking whale”) and many more. In addition to having a more inclusive view of life throughout Earth’s prehistory, there had to be plenty of pictures, naturally. These are a few books I found that include dinosaurs AND equally interesting non-dinos:
Super Little Giant Book of Prehistoric Creatures
by David Lambert and The Diagram Group
2006, 288 pages, 4" X 5".
This small book has clear illustrations, timelines, overviews of the major geologicalperiods, and spotlights a good variety of animals with a description plus a summary of pronunciation of those tongue-twisting names, scientific classification, size, diet, location, and era.
The Complete Guide to Prehistoric Life
Tim Haines and Paul Chambers, the makers of the TV trilogy Walking With Dinosaurs/Beasts/Monsters
2005, 216 pages, 8.5" X 11.
This book has stunning digital illustrations with photo-realistic detail that bring the ancient world to frightening life. Presented in chronological order, there’s a written description of each animal and its lifestyle. From Thrinaxodon (a reptile with whiskers), to Giganotosaurus (the largest meat-eating dinosaur), to Entelodon (a rhino-sized pig) these are fascinating creatures to get acquainted with.
National Geographic Prehistoric Mammals
by Alan Turner, paintings by Mauricio Anton
2004, 192 pages, 8.5" X 11.25"
A splendid compendium starting with mammal-like reptiles then covering the major mammal groups such as marsupials, elephant relatives such as Deinotherium (with nice chin tusks), primitive whales, tank-like Glyptodonts, bear-dogs, giant sloths, the largest land mammal (Paraceratherium) and many more, including human ancestors. Many of the painterly illustrations also include a panorama of the habitat that existed at the time, as opposed to showing the animals on a plain white background.
The World Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs & Prehistoric Creatures
by Dougal Dixon
2007, 512 pages, 7" X 9"
One of the most comprehensive guides available, with about 1,000 animals described and nicely illustrated. After summaries of the geological timescale, habitats, and the process of fossilization, the animals march in. Starting with early tetrapods (4-limbed descendants of fish), there are giant amphibians, early reptiles and mammals, ocean-dwelling reptiles such as plesiosaurs, flying pterosaurs, armored/grazing/meat-eating dinosaurs, almost-birds, early cats, dogs, camels, rhinos, primates... they’re all there and more in a mind-boggling parade of the incredible creatures that existed ages ago.
By the way, I haven't forgotten about prehistoric plants. There aren’t many books devoted to them exclusively, but many references include at least a token section about ancient flora. And not to neglect the wonders of the Internet... you can find recently unearthed discoveries too new to be in books by putting in search terms like “giant prehistoric rodent”...some very cool critters just may pop up, such as this 1 ton wonder that did end up in my book.
When Fish Got Feet, Sharks Got Teeth, and Bugs Began to Swarm: A Cartoon Prehistory of Life Long Before Dinosaurs
by Hannah Bonner
2007, 48 pages, 8.5" X 10.5 inches
also When Bugs Were Big, Plants Were Strange, and Tetrapods Stalked the Earth: A Cartoon Prehistory of Life before Dinosaurs
These two books are a funny, informative survey of life before the dinosaurs.
Prehistoric Life: The Definitive Visual History of Life on Earth
2009, 512 pages, 11.8 X 10.3 inches
My husband Andy spotted this thick tome at the bookstore, and it was a huge help. In addition to many pictures, the timelines made it much easier to put things in order.
For an incredibly comprehensive list of K-12 books about fossils, dinosaurs, and other prehistoric topics, check out this page compiled by retired science librarian Jack Mount.