In Review: Dactyl Hill Squad

Perfect reading for young fans who would like some history mixed with a healthy dose of dinosaurs.

Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel José Older

Published by Scholastic, September 11, 2018. Jacketed hardcover of 272 pages at $16.99. Intended for ages 8 – 12, grades 3 – 7. 

Note: I received an advanced copy so anything may have changed by publication.

The cover: The Dactyl Hill Squad flies through the streets of New York City on the backs of willing pterodactlys while being pursued by Richard Riker on a tyrannosaurus. This cover by Nilah Magruder is the perfect tease of what lies within the pages of this book. The colors for the red sky and the pale yellows for the tyrannosaurus gives the book a semi-frightening feel, but the look on hero Magdalys’s face tells the reader that she’s in her element. Her joy is in an invitation to explore the book. Overall grade: A

The premise: From the back cover, “It’s 1863 and dinosaurs roam the streets of New York as the Civil War rages between raptor-mounted armies down South. Magdalys Roca and her friends from the Colored Orphan Asylum are on a field trip when the Draft Riots break out, and a number of the fellow orphans are kidnapped by an evil magistrate, Richard Riker. Magdalys and her friends flee to Brooklyn and settle in the Dactyl Hill neighborhood, where black and brown New Yorkers have set up an independent community — a safe haven from the threats of Manhattan. Together with the Vigilance Committee, they train to fly on dactylback, discover new friends and amazing dinosaurs, and plot to take down Riker. Can Magdalys and the squad rescue the rest of their friends before it’s too late?” Dinosaurs? Civil War? Sounds interesting. I’m a big fan of alternate history, so I’m curious to see if Older can weave in fact with his fiction. Overall grade: A-

The characters: Magdalys Roca has several elements of her character that make her extremely likable. She’s all about her family. After her two sisters were picked up from the orphanage, it’s just her and her brother Montez, but he’s run away to join the front line during the war, leaving Magdalys wanting to be reunited with him. She receives a letter about his first combat action and she is always keeping him in her mind. She is also all about doing right. Considering all that happens to her and her friends, she wants to do right by people, or dinosaurs. And she can communicate with dinosaurs! This is no spoiler, as it’s revealed in the first chapter. To what extent, the reader will have to find out for him or herself, but it’s a fantastic fantasy element to include in this alternate history. Her friends include Two Step, who is quick on his feet and loves to dance, and Mapper, who becomes invaluable as the plot progresses with his ability to remember places. As children with brown or black skin during the Civil War, there are obvious dangers, even though they reside in New York. First is Miss Henrietta Von Marsh, the headmistress of the Colored Orphan Asylum. She isn’t one who wishes harm on the children, but she and Magdalys have butted heads in the past and they do so right from the get-go in this book. She’s no Mrs. Hannigan, but she comes close. The true villain of the book is Magistrate Richard Riker and his gang. He’s a police officer, who claims to be keeping the piece, but actually rounds up black children to sell them to others. He is ruthless, despicable, and rides one heck of mean dino. Every time he appears in the book readers will know that things have turned serious. There are several other characters in the book, both good and evil, but I’ll leave them to be revealed to the reader. All of these characters are very engaging, entertaining, and enjoyable. Overall grade: A  

The settings: New York City and Dactyl Hill are the primary settings. Older provides plenty of description to bring these settings to life, including having dinosaurs be part of the norm. In fact, they fit in well with the bustling nature of the Big Apple. The orphanage is a neat locale, though not much time is spent here. The streets of NYC begin as fairly inviting, but after the Draft Riots it’s not hospitable for anyone. Dactyl Hill receives the best description, with one establishment being full of wonderful spaces inhabited by several wonderful characters, as well as containing a sinister structure that contains a mysterious individual. Overall grade: A

The action: In addition to the great characters and descriptive settings is the almost non-stop pace of this book. The tension from the first chapter comes from Magdalys’s rush to make it to her dino transport in time to get to go into the city for an event. Once on the bus, Older is a master of pacing, allowing characters plenty of quiet time to talk and reveal information and an incredible amount of action that’s delivered at a wonderful breakneck speed. There’s an amazing chase through the streets of New York City on dinosaur back, spellbinding flights on the back of dactyls, frightening voyages on the waters, and an epic fight in the book’s conclusion. I was constantly turning pages to see where Magdalys and her friends would go and how they would escape certain doom. Overall grade: A+

The conclusion: An epic battle ends perfectly, with one villain getting a fantastic and deserved fate. However, the Dactyl Hill Squad have a new mission, and one that fits in perfectly with one character’s goals. The book ends with them beginning their journey. I can only hope that Older returns to these characters soon. Overall grade: A

The final line: Perfect reading for young fans who would like some history mixed with a healthy dose of dinosaurs. The characters are engaging, the action impressive, and the sprinkling of historical events and characters more than enough to make the curious seek out their full history. My hat’s off to Older for creating an alternate history novel that leaves me hungry for more. Recommended. Overall grade: A

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Patrick Hayes was a contributor to the Comic Buyer's Guide for several years with "It's Bound to Happen!" and he's reviewed comics for TrekWeb and TrekCore. He's taught 8th graders English for 20 years and has taught high school English for five years and counting. He reads everything as often as he can, when not grading papers or looking up Star Trek, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones items online.
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