If the first book by author James Gladstone and illustrator Katherine Diemert were a short educational film, its soundtrack would be early Pink Floyd or something else suitably trippy. When Planet Earth Was New is an epic retelling of our planet’s origin story that aims to blow the minds of young readers as much as to educate them.
The book begins out in the depths of prehistoric space, a roiling storm of meteors and unstable planet-like masses – one of which has all the right features to become a breeding ground for life. (We’re not told why: causality is barely addressed in the text. Things mostly just happen, and our Earth is the result.) We move quickly through fiery volcanoes and lava floes the size of continents; burbling oceans of biological potential; slow landward marches by creatures that grow legs, grow large, then go extinct; a few million years of fur and claw; and finally, our current blink-of-an-eye period of human dominion, depicted here as an era in which affable bipeds hang around in mid-rise apartments.
Gladstone narrates these literally world-changing developments with an unshakeable sense of awe, and mostly eschews lengthy explanations. (One caption reads, in total: “Life evolved on land.”) The book includes a glossary and a list of sources. Curiously, it also ends with a two-page spread in which each image is given an alternate, more informative caption.
The real draw is Diemert’s painted illustrations, which are both gorgeous and vaguely psychedelic, and favour a widescreen perspective over close focus. We see dinosaurs in battle and other creatures from various geological eras doing their best to survive and multiply, but are given few glimpses of the finer points of the planet-in-progress. Diemert’s best images instill a sense of wonder; the less effective (of which there are thankfully few) feel like the evolutionary equivalent of B-roll footage.
Despite a few flaws, When Planet Earth Was New nails the sense of majesty and mystery that ought to accompany any look at the planet’s beginnings. With luck, it will inspire young readers to zoom in on some of the billion-year changes that are only glimpsed from afar here.