One of Gerald Durrell’s less well-known books, I first read this myself as a child and have recently read it to my own son, aged five. It was an amazing hit – we read the whole book (95 pages) in under 24 hours – and deservedly so: it’s full of Durrell’s trade-mark charm, description and humour, with added adventure.
The plot follows three children who accompany their great-uncle back to the Mezozoic era to track a pair of villains who have stolen the great-uncle’s time machine in order to hunt and capture dinosaurs for sport and profit. The chase is conducted by hot air balloon and, as they journey through the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous, they have various escapades with dinosaurs, make new friends, face perils and ultimately bring the villains to face justice. The narrative is fast-moving, interesting and genuinely exciting, even as an adult reader and – once one accepts the two plot-devices of the time machine and a powder which allows them to speak to dinosaurs – plausible and self-consistent.
The glory of the book is that, while aimed at children, it doesn’t dumb down, either in vocabulary or in content. Like his adult books, it is full of little facts about natural history, though never in a didactic or tedious way. Similarly, the humour comes less from gags than from the interactions of the well-drawn characters, including the occasionally irascible and portly great-uncle and Albert, the irrepressible young gnathosaur. High quality illustrations on each page also help to bring the book to life, potentially making it accessible at a younger age than it would otherwise be.
Overall, a superb part of the Durrell corpus and a strong recommendation to any child from 5 to about 10.