NONFICTION March 2, 2012

Life Lessons To Be Learned From The Extinct

Page Four: If you have a fire in your house. . ..

Wait a minute. Where’s Max? We can’t be done with Max. Why are we done with Max? This seems odd. Beyond odd. It’s upsetting.

The dinosaur on this page is the kind with those boney fins on his back. Stegosaurus? I don’t know. I’m not good with the technical terms. But it isn’t Max. And I’m having some trouble here getting into this picture, mostly, I guess because I want to know that Max’s birthday wasn’t completely ruined by the fire. I want some reassurance that after all the fun he had stopping, dropping and rolling, he still got to open his gift. That his cake wasn’t burned to ash. That his parents made it up to him somehow. That they made it all better somehow.

“Wasn't this story about Max?” I ask my daughter. “Where did he go?”

She taps the open page. “Max got burned up.”

“I don’t think that’s what happened.”

“Max got burned up,” she says.

I try to move on. And admittedly, the new nameless dinosaur has got problems of his own. Real problems I shouldn’t ignore. My daughter has switched from crayon to marker, so the colors are much more compelling. She’s chosen to make the armchair—which by the way is entirely engulfed in flames—a deep, dark purple. The dinosaur himself, backing away (as any reasonable person or reasonable whatever might..
is a loose patchwork of green, blue, orange, pink. And he’s holding a book, a book within a book if you will. The Three Little Pigs.

My guess is that he was on this armchair, which looks like it was pretty comfy before it caught fire, reading about the pigs, when something terrible happened. Some kind of spontaneous combustion event. Or maybe he was having a cigarette, but got so caught up in the story of the pigs and their failure to take adequate care, he let an ash or two drop, and that was that.

But I realize that I am struggling with this page. I’m having a hard time, not only because I find it difficult to stop worrying about Max but also because I know for a fact that by the time pigs came along dinosaurs were already extinct. There were no books about pigs for dinosaurs to read. And I find myself unable to suspend disbelief here—which isn’t like me. Not at all. And maybe because of that, this whole page is suddenly making me feel sad. It’s like this dinosaur is in such denial. Like he has absolutely no idea what’s coming next.

I’m relieved when without a word my daughter turns the page.

Page Five: Go outside! Stay outside!

Okay. So, this new dinosaur, the same finny one (who has jettisoned the pig book, by the way) is walking out of his house, crossing the threshold, clearly moving outward. Outside. Out of his home. And through the doorway we can see that the room he is leaving is full of flames. An absolute conflagration. But—and this is important—the flames are in the background, safely behind him. And, in clear distinction to what might occur in my own home (the significance of which is not lost on me) there’s no nonsense here about searching for the fire extinguisher. No picking up the phone to make a call. No backwards glance.

And no rolling around on the floor allowing himself to experience a pure, possibly fatal joy.

He is outta there.!

I can’t help but wonder if any authorial thought was given to the possibility of having him bring the book with him when he left; whether the responsible parties gave any consideration to discouraging kids from burning books. But I personally think this was the better way to go. It’s so clean. Just get the hell out and let it all burn. Book, chair, house. Burn baby burn. I’m just walk away. No second thoughts. And no regrets.

Looking out for number one: That’s the point here. My daughter’s magic marker contributions reflect a spirit of liberation on this page. The tulips outside the door sport jaunty stripes, while the dinosaur himself is a kind of happy pink.

“Nice work,” I say, and I give one of her little legs a squeeze.

Page Six: Do you know how to get out?

The only appropriate response here is uh-oh.

Because clearly this dinosaur—yet another new dinosaur, but I am trying to go with the flow —does not know how to get out. And what’s more, he knows it. He knows what he does not know. He is that self-aware, that evolved in terms of consciousness. Which I’m guessing a dinosaur wouldn’t actually have been. So here’s another case of my having to suspend disbelief. But in this case, I’m able to do so. Maybe that’s the natural result of immersing myself in the text. Or maybe it’s because of the palpable dramatic tension created on this page.

He’s struggling with a doorknob, and there’s a thought bubble that says, “I must practice!” And I think the exclamation point is important, because without it, it’s just like, yeah, he should practice. We should all practice. All of us. More than we do. But with the exclamation point, there’s an element of panic here. A sense that he is really not getting this whole doorknob thing. He genuinely cannot escape. It’s like, Holy shit, I really have to practice. Exclamation point.

I can tell that this page bummed my daughter out, because she has just sort of scratched at it with pencil, not even colored pencil. Regular old number two, graphite gray.

If I were teaching a seventh-grade English class the meaning of the word foreshadow, this wouldn’t be a half bad place to start. I’m not saying this dinosaur is having intimations of extinction or anything, but there’s just a subtle hint of something like that on this page.

“Do we ever practice?” my daughter asks. “Getting out?”

“We don’t,” I say. “But we will. From now on we definitely will.” Exclamation point.

Page Seven: Have a meeting place outside.

Ok. This is one complex fucking page.