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Paleontology & Other Big Ideas for Young Minds

March 24, 20247 min read

Get a free PDF of the complete study guide when you email Katie a link to this post and an image of the sales receipt for buying Winx Thinks – Dinosaurs!

Michael Crichton’s novel, Dragon Teeth, features two scientists fiercely racing to be first to dig up strange, enormous fossils in the American West. Reading this fact-based story of discovery-at-all-costs inspired Katie O. Engen to write Winx Thinks – Dinosaurs! for middle school students.

Winx Thinks small

While engaging on its own merits, Crichton’s book got me thinking about the many other curious-to-greedy people struggling to reconcile new concepts as they found odd rocks, recognized which ones merited collecting, and finally had enough evidence to claim dinosaurs existed. How mind-blowing to be among the first to use fossils to study beasts that lived before time began! I was excited to share these big ideas and the birth of paleontology with young readers.

But would kids care about past collectors’ curiosity, frustrations, and uncertainties? Since dinosaurs are hugely attention-grabbing, could I engage readers to focus on the drive for discovery that stirred the people and places of early paleontology? How best should I convey the messy bits of history that accompany an emerging science?

Winx small

Thankfully, goofy, dino-loving Winx Muller sprang to mind, totally eager to puzzle out the twisty, misty magic of paleo-discovery. He couldn’t wait to time travel his way through history in the making. And so, Winx Thinks – Dinosaurs! was drafted during three hyper-focused weeks in October 2018. Of course, like any worthwhile pursuit, it took a lot of deep digging, some despairing, focused dreaming, and a lot of (re-)doing to get that first draft ready for publication.

Escaping into the pages of a good book should be an unfettered joy, so I aimed for more than tacking paleontology’s early history onto a barebones plot. Afterall, readers don’t stick around for dull, disjointed stories. Of course, as a life-long educator, I also hope readers will delve into – maybe even delight in – the facts of science and history woven into Winx’s story. So, with a keen request that readers of this post promise to protect the pure reading experience, here are some of the story’s underpinnings to share with Winx fans hankering for more.


Winx’s time travel dilemmas follow the process of science and discovery. Here are some examples of how I fluffed and buffed the traditional lab report format (hypothesis, materials, procedure, results, analysis) to structure main plot points and add plenty of problems:

1. Hypothesize: To advance knowledge, wonder and thought need creativity and specificity. Winx and Marta persistently puzzle through wacky-to-wonderful ideas to select options and details as they devise new and increasingly focused hypotheses for getting Winx to the Mesozoic.

2. Materials: The Socks, Time Tags, and basic backpack supplies are given items. It’s refining the research materials, attire, or tools to bring that gets tricky. Not to mention what happens if anything gets left in Other Times.

3. Procedures: The Rules from Shiny Box and the Stinky Socks’ song are not the easiest to interpret or follow. It’s also tricky to judge when and how to vary procedures in the face of danger.

4. Research, Re-Think, Retry: This cycle is a never-ending driver for Winx & Marta. And as the core of scientific and historical research, this trio also fuels the book’s plot.

5. Luck, Perseverance, & Flexible Thinking: Take it from Winx…even the best-laid hypothesis goes awry. Sometimes “lucky” can be a good thing. Winx makes some of his own luck by staying alert and pivoting quickly.

6. Ask for Help: Independent and even rebellious thinking help Winx. They hurt him, too. Seeking help and using savvy inputs from others gets him closer to his goal.


Key themes and plot points align with true moments in the history of paleontology. For example:

1. The Latin word fossus means ‘having been dug up.’ The word ‘fossil’ joined common usage in the mid-1600s. It applied to anything dug from deep in the earth. In another ~100 years common collectors started using it as paleontology took hold. See fossil - Kids | Britannica Kids | Homework Help for a modern definition. The word ‘paleontology’ wasn’t coined until 1822 and ‘dinosaur’ until 1842.

2. Fossil collectors existed in Colonial New England, Winx’s likely location for his first time travel trip. Yet there were other reasons to dig, too. Together, farmers dug out rocks to clear land. Others were digging clams for food. So if he’d stayed, Winx’s hopes of joining a dino dig were no better than ~30%.

3. People digging wells for water did unearth fossils. Per Aunt Lena, there is a museum in Connecticut to prove it - The Bones from the Well – East Windsor, Connecticut - Atlas Obscura. But did more zealous fossil hunters intentionally blow things up? Yes - These Are Some of the Weirdest Ways Paleontologists Find Fossils | Science| Smithsonian Magazine. They still do today - Fire in the Hole! Explosives Help Uncover Fossils At Dinosaur National Monument | National Parks Traveler.

4. Knowledge of Deep Time and the Zuniceratops is not unique to the Zuni. Yet their Twin Sons and Yeitso bring a unique perspective to the interplay of science and creation stories. Winx and Marta saw first-hand some of the culture and history noted by the Zuni Basin Paleontological Project | Arizona Museum of Natural History and Zuni Creation Story - Wonders & Marvels.

5. Mary Anning was the real deal! Lyme Regis remains a paleo-paradise to this day - Mary Anning: Lyme Regis Museum. The other early paleo-experts Winx mentions or meets are based on real scientists, too. See, for example, Richard Owen Facts for Kids. And yes, fossilized dino poo was (and is) a big deal - Coprolite Renaissance.


Like any solid kidlit, distinct storytelling elements give Winx Thinks – Dinosaurs! a bit of literary heft. Distilled examples include:

1. Plot: Winx’s destinations and detours on his Mesozoic-or-bust quest follow the process of discovery and the birth of paleontology. So, the plot structure is real on several levels.

2. Character Arc: Winx starts out fearful of dust and ends up covered in Mesozoic muck after facing down an Allosaurus. Aunt Lena’s cryptic time travel quips slowly reveal her traits and priorities.

3. Motivation: Marta consistently makes choices because she is protective of Winx and assertive about her own interests regardless of her erratic health issues.

4. Setting: The Desert Southwest, a Victorian garden party, a waterfall in India – each location is painted with word choices and literary tools to convey imagery, tone, tension, and voice.

Read Winx Thinks - Dinosaurs! by Katie O. Engen

Winx Thinks Dinosaurs! cover

Winx Thinks – Dinosaurs! is the first in the Winx Thinks time travel adventure series designed to share big ideas with young minds who enjoy pacey books and middle grade vibes.

When you buy the book, you can get FREE Story-based Learning Activities to enhance your education.

About the Author

Katie O’Brien Engen, M.Ed. and wordplay specialist, writes stories and cross-curricular learning resources to engage young minds with big ideas. She works in private practice mentoring students with executive functioning and language processing challenges. Katie also guest blogs about writing, reading, and teaching as well as reviews kidlit books for various outlets. Happy to leave her desk for family, sports, or books, Katie is fueled by faith, laughter, and ice cream. She lives in Maryland where one of her favorite runs is the ~10 miles to the Washington Monument in D.C. Visit for more.

FREE Story-based Learning Activities

Story-based Activities Winx Thinks Dinos

You can get these follow-up activities to extend the story experience. Download your first set here. These ready-to-use activities recap chapters 5-6, Winx’s first time travel trip of Winx Thinks – Dinosaurs! Also, you’ll get a ‘Think Like Winx’ graphic organizer, useful for planning and problem solving in many ways.

Additionally, Katie has created a complete Think Like Winx! study guide ideal for grades 5-8 and the adaptability of homeschooling. The study guide offers comprehension queries and cross-curricular explorations for all 26 chapters of Winx Thinks – Dinosaurs! plus some extras in the back matter. The range of activity response options allows for fun creative flow and invites young minds to retain, reflect, refine, and grow as they consider how Winx thinks, acts, feels, explores, and perseveres.

Katie will supply a free PDF of the complete study guide to readers who email her both a link to this post and an image of the sales receipt for buying Winx Thinks – Dinosaurs! (card number/payment details redacted).

Send the post link and receipt image to katie(dot)engen(at)verizon(dot)net. This offer expires six months after this post’s publication date. (September 24, 2024)

Visit for more info on the Winx Thinks series, study guides, and other big ideas for young minds.

Post by Katie O. Engen

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