Caroline Arnold's Books

Home My Books Children's Projects School Visits / Teaching Awards About the Author
Trapped in Tar Trapped in Tar

Ice Age fossils of mammoths, sabertooth cats, dire wolves and more, discovered in the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles are displayed in the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries. This book tells the story behind the fossils and about life in the Ice Age when these animals were alive and examines the work of the paleontologists who excavate and study them. During the Ice Age, over 400 different kinds of animals lived on the grassy plain that is now Los Angeles. Then, as now, pools of tar sometimes seeped to the surface of the earth. Unwary animals stepped into the sticky tar and were trapped. There they died. Gradually their bones sank to the bottom of the tar seep. In time, the tar penetrated the bones and preserved them. Trapped in Tar: Fossils from the Ice Age was originally published in 1987 by Clarion Books and was illustrated with black and white photographs by Richard Hewett. This is an updated and reillustrated edition.

Prizes and Awards
  • SCBWI Recommended Reading List, July 2021
  • Junior Library Guild selection, 1987
  • Outstanding Science Trade Book (CBC/NSTA) 1987
  • Best Children's Books and Films (AAAS), 1987
  • Notable Book, ALA 1987
  • Recommended Reading, CA Literature for Mathematics and Sciences, 1987
  • Honor Book for Children, NY Academy of Sciences, 1987
  • Children's Projects

      Peanut Butter and Jelly Geology

      The Earth's crust is made of many layers of rock and dirt. They build up over millions of years. In some places, where a hill has been cut along the side of a road, you can see some of the layers. The Grand Canyon is another place to see how the Earth was formed. You can make an "Earth Sandwich" to learn about the layers of the Earth. Each part represents a part of the Earth's crust. When you cut the sandwich in half, it will be like digging through the layers of the Earth.

      To make your sandwich, you will need: pumpernickel bread for coal, rye bread for sandstone, white bread for limestone, peanut butter for dirt, jelly for oil or tar, raisins for boulders, and pretzel sticks for fossil bones

    Book notes

    When I was growing up in Minneapolis I spent a lot of time in the out-of-doors. My parents interest in the natural world encouraged me and my three younger brothers to become involved in bird watching, learning to identify wild flowers, and collecting rocks. I still remember climbing cliffs along the Mississippi river to collect chunks of limestone and the thrill of cracking it open to discover the perfectly preserved skeleton of a creature that had lived millions of years earlier. When I moved to Los Angeles as an adult and saw the fossilized skeletons of Ice Age animals at the La Brea Tar Pits, I felt this same sense of awe.

    The bones in the tar pits had been preserved in the oily tar into which they had sunk thousands of years ago. Nowhere else on Earth was there anything like this. What particularly fascinated me was the window inside the museum where I could look into the laboratory and actually see paleontologists at work. I could imagine their excitement as they saw the fossilized skeletons slowly emerge. Here was evidence of dramas thousands of years old. In my book I wanted to convey this same sense of excitement and at the same time create a picture of what it might have been like to live in the Ice Age.

    Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, June 1987

    An enthusiastic text describes the kinds of fossils found in southern California tar pits. The processes of recovery and paleontologic research are the real emphasis here, but these reveal more than a glimpse of animal and plant life in the Ice Age. In addition to the inherent child appeal of the subject and clear explanations, the book has a lively format, with pictures dramatically featuring young museum visitors in involved inspection or even hands-on experience of the displays. Closeups of scientists working with bones in excavation pits and laboratories lend a sense of excitement that will inspire students working on prehistoric units and time lines.

    Booklist, June 1987

    California's Rancho La Brea Tar Pits are the subject of this photo essay, which explains what the tar pits are and why they are important for scientists studying Ice Age life. In essence, the bones and plant life found in the tar pits constitute a record of life 10,000 to 40,000 years ago; the sticky pools and puddles trapped a range of plant- and meat-eating animals and preserved their bones. Arnold describes how the remains are excavated and briefly surveys the kinds of large and small animals that have been discovered. Large, accompanying photographs show some fascinating views of life-size fiberglass models of prehistoric creatures at La Brea as well as the bones themselves, legions of which have been cleaned, catalogued, and stored for study.