Dinotopia by James Gurney (1992)

Dinotopia1Cover blurb

In 1860, when extensive uncharted territories covered a respectable portion of the globe, biologist Arthur Denison and his young son, Will, set out on a Darwinian voyage of exploration.

Somewhere on the expedition, Professor Denison and Will disappeared. Neither they nor anyone from their ship were heard from again – until very recently. It now appears that, through the kindly intervention of dolphins, they were transported to the lost island of Dinotopia, a land where dinosaurs and humans live together in peaceful interdependence. The dinosaurs appreciate the skills and liveliness of Homo sapiens, and the humans benefit from the wisdom and gentleness of the very much older species.

The exciting, often spectacular, adventures of the Denisons in Dinotopia are chronicled here by the Professor. As a trained professional observer of the world’s flora and fauna, he recorded his experiences in meticulous detail; otherwise it would be difficult to believe the astonishing discoveries he documented. His artistic skills allow the rich tapestry of Dinotopia life to emerge with graphic impact. He presents clearly the marvels of architecture designed for 50-ton organisms – aquatic cities, water-parks, treetowns, and other wonders both natural and dinosaur/man-made.

Professor Denison details aspects of daily life, too: parades and celebrations, sports (some quite risky!), and foods. He tells of sleeping quarters suspended from trees; hatcheries (where dinosaurs tend dinosaur young) and playparks (where dinosaurs tend human young); and modes of transportation, including air travel on Quetzalcoatlus, known locally as Skybax. In short, he shows Dinotopia to be a marvelously fascinating place, offering adventure and excitement, as well as an extraordinary opportunity to gain insight into our own world and time from the Dinotopian point of view.

My thoughts

The word “Dinotopia” literally translates to “terrible place,” but as envisioned by artist and writer James Gurney, it isn’t such a bad place to visit.

The story begins with Gurney stumbling upon an obscure journal written by an equally obscure 19th century explorer, Arthur Denison. The book that readers hold is a copy of that journal, which records Arthur’s travels in Dinotopia, a lost continent where dinosaurs and humans live together in peace, with a few exceptions.

Arthur is traveling by sea with his young son Will when their vessel is shipwrecked in a storm. The two are saved by friendly dolphins, who carry the father and son to a sandy beach. The discovery of a large footprint in the sand is their first clue that something strange is going on. Not long after, a bizarre-looking reptile come walking out of the underbrush, and Arthur, in a panic, throws a large stone at it and injures it. Arthur and Will are immediately surrounded by a group of dinosaurs, but instead of being trampled or eaten, they are surprised when a young girl appears and talks to the beasts. It turns out that dinosaurs are not only still alive, they’re as intelligent as humans.

So begins a years-long journey across Dinotopia, which Arthur meticulously records with paintings and writings in his journal. At the same time Will makes his own journey into manhood, training to become one of Dinotopia’s most celebrated residents — a skybax rider.

I admit my first reaction to the book was mild disappointment because I was assuming Dinotopia was a place where humans lived beside wild dinosaurs and not the intelligent beasts that populate the Gurney’s world. However, that disappointment soon disappeared and I quickly got caught up in the fantasy. What makes Dinotopia an outstanding work of fiction is the art. It is incredibly detailed, from the anatomy of the dinosaurs to the architecture to the often bizarre clothing worn by Dinotopia’s residents. It’s as if Gurney painted each of his scenes from real life rather than from his fertile imagination, and a reader can easily loose track of time scanning for details in many of the paintings.

The book itself really doesn’t have much in the way of plot. The character of Arthur is largely just the vehicle readers use to explore Dinotopia, experiencing the world through his eyes and ears. Will’s story is more fleshed out as he grows to manhood, falls in love and pursues his dream of becoming a skybax rider. Some readers may bemoan the lack of a focused story with a beginning, middle and end, but the journal format Gurney uses works quite well because it allows readers to explore the setting at a level that would have not been possible with a more traditional plot.

Dinotopia ends with many of the questions raised throughout the book left unanswered. It is clear that Gurney meant the book to be the first in a series. While the ending may feel like a bit of an anti-climax, you will have had so much fun making the journey, you won’t mind returning again.


  • Dinotopia was adapted into a three-part miniseries and a short-lived television show in 2002. The series is set several years after the books, but references to Gurney’s works are found throughout the show.
  • The Code of Dinotopia, found on page 77 of Dinotopia begins with the saying: “Survival of all or none,” and is followed by 10 other lines. If you look at the first letters of each of those sentences and read down, they spell out another line: “SOW GOOD SEED.”
  • The dinosaur and the human in charge of the library are named “Enit” and “Nallab.” If you spell their names backwards, you get “Ballantine.” Ian Ballantine, who served as the model for Nallab, was the publisher who encouraged James Gurney to write the book.
  • The Dinotopian footprint alphabet was inspired by cuneiform writing from ancient Babylon. The idea developed from actual reports that early explorers mistook the impressions in clay tablets for the footprints of birds.
  • In the dinosaur parade scene on page 153, the building says “SAUROPOLIS” in Roman letters rather than in the footprint alphabet. This painting was finished before the alphabet was developed, and the change wasn’t possible.
  • On page 24 of Dinotopia, there is a man with white hair named “Orchardwine” seated at the head of the table. His face is modeled after Sir Richard Owen, the British scientist who came up with the name “Dinosauria.” If you rearrange the letters of “Orchardwine,” they will spell “Richard Owen.
  • Dinotopia has been published in 18 languages, including Chinese, where the word “Dinotopia” translates as “terrible lizard happy dream kingdom.”

* Updated trivia provided by author James Gurney.


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