Kids riding dinosaurs in New York City! Does it get more fun?
Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel José Older. Arthur A. Levine Books, Scholastic, 2018.
It’s 1863 in New York City – the middle of the Civil War. Magdalys Roca, a resident of the Colored Orphan Asylum, is waging an ongoing and so far unsuccessful campaign for the matron of the school to call her by her real name instead of the anglicized Margaret Rochford. But neither that indignity nor the slow old dino they have to take to get there is enough to keep her away from the theater – a local African-American brother and sister who put on high-energy Shakespeare productions. Soon, Magdalys has bigger things to worry about as the theater and orphanage are attacked and burned down in the very real and racially motivated Draft Riots.
It also appears that the orphans who didn’t attend the theater were kidnapped in order to be sold into slavery. Magdalys and her surviving friends (including a Mohawk girl whose father is a general in the army) join with the mostly adult Vigilance Committee to find them and save them from slavery. There’s also a good bit of adventuring on the side as Magdalys discovers that she shares a special bond with the dinos and pteros that live and work around the city.
Though the addition of dinosaurs seems pretty clearly there to add fun to an otherwise grim situation, the author clearly thought through what kinds of jobs they would be able to do if used as domestic animals, so that this aspect really worked for me. An afterward explains more both about this possibilities and the draft riots, which are also featured in 2016 Cybils finalist The Door at the Crossroads by Zetta Elliott and covered in a Stuff You Missed in History Class Podcast episode. Content warning: the orphans find that their school’s caretaker was lynched as the orphanage was attacked, but this is a brief and not too graphic episode.
If I’m really honest, I still love Older’s Shadowshaper a little bit more, but this was lots of fun and should be an easy sell to kids, especially those who love stories of military history, dinosaurs, or self-reliant orphans.
This book has been nominated for the Cybils award. This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.