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Featured GraphicMeet James Gurney: Dinosaur Stamp Artist

The story behind the creation of the U.S. Postal Service's The World of Dinosaurs stamps offers a unique tool for building listening and sequencing skills.


Invite students to listen carefully as you read aloud the story below that tells how the U.S. Postal Service's The World of Dinosaurs stamps (1997) came to be. After reading aloud the story, ask students the questions that follow to learn how well they listened.

(NOTE: For younger students, you might divide the story into two parts. The follow-up listening questions are divided to reflect a two-part reading of the story.)


"The United States Postal Service has a rule: A person must be dead for at least ten years before they can appear on a stamp," says artist James Gurney. "Dinosaurs have been dead for 65 million years, so they definitely qualify!"

In the 150-year history of the U.S. postage stamp, dinosaurs have been featured only twice. So you can imagine how thrilled James Gurney was to be selected to create the art for the dino stamps--"The World of Dinosaurs"--released May 1, 1997, by the U.S. Postal Service.

Gurney was chosen to create "The World of Dinosaurs" stamps by members of a special U.S. Postal Service committee. The committee asked Gurney to produce a scene that would include four dinosaur stamps. Gurney chose four dinosaurs that actually would have lived at the same time in North America. In September 1995, he quickly sketched a design that included the head of a T. rex and the bodies of three other dinosaurs.

Members of the stamp committee loved Gurney's sketch, so they asked him to do a new sketch that would include more dinosaur stamps. In January 1996, Gurney drew up a new design that included two scenes, each with five dinosaurs. One scene showed dinosaurs of North America during the Cretaceous period; the other showed dinosaurs of the Jurassic period.

At this point, Gurney's stamp project was still top secret. He wasn't allowed to tell anyone one about it! But Gurney wanted to be sure that his artwork was scientifically correct. He wanted to be allowed to talk with a few dinosaur experts to be certain that the dinosaurs and their habitats were accurate. The Postal Service gave Gurney the OK to talk to the experts---but to no one else!

"The scientists provided me with lots of information about other creatures and plants that would have shared the world with dinosaurs," Gurney says. "Those creatures included frogs, turtles, insects, crocodiles, mammals, and birds." In addition, the experts provided information about plants that would have been part of the dinosaurs' world.


Next, Gurney was ready to begin his final sketch. His goal was to show the rich and diverse ecosystem in which the dinosaurs lived. "There were plenty of plants and animals that looked a lot like what you would find today in Florida," he says.

"I wanted the picture to tell a variety of stories," Gurney continues. "Not only predators looking for a meal, but also babies hatching from eggs and mammals hiding in trees. To show a fossil in the making, I placed a skull of one dinosaur in the mud at the edge of a pond."

The stamp committee gave the OK to Gurney's final sketch, so he went to work on the painting. As he was completing his work, one member of the stamp committee happened to suggest that some of the creatures in the art of the scene's margins might make nice stamps too.

"He was right," Gurney says. "It was a great idea. There were indeed at least five more stamp designs hidden away!"

So Gurney touched up his painting to make the five new stamps.

"At one point we even thought of having yet another extra stamp of the nest full of hatchlings," Gurney says. "Take a close look at the scene and you can see the white egg is set up as a space for the `USA 32.'"

Only one problem remained: Where would the perforation holes be placed that divided the stamps from each other?

"It was very important that a person could tear up the sheet easily to get at the stamps without being confused about what were stamps and what were scraps," Gurney explains, noting that the scraps might be fun to use as decoration stickers once the stamps were torn away.

"Of course, everyone at the Postal Service hoped that people will get a couple sheets, one to use for stamps and another to keep untouched in a drawer or a stamp album," says Gurney.

"As for me, I'd like to stick the whole sheet on my T-shirt and mail myself to the Mesozoic era via Priority Mail," he added.


Listening -- When you've finished reading the story aloud, ask students the following questions to see how well they listened.

Part 1: Setting the Scene


  1. How many years must a person be dead before that person can be featured on a U.S. stamp? (ten years)


  2. Before James Gurney's dinosaur stamps were issued, how many times had dinosaurs been featured on U.S. stamps? (twice)


  3. How many dinosaurs were included in the first design that Gurney sketched? (four)


  4. Why did the stamp committee ask Gurney to do a new design? (They liked his first one; they wanted the new design to include more dinosaur stamps.)


  5. Why did Gurney want to talk with dinosaur experts before he did his final stamp painting? (He wanted to be sure that his painting would be scientifically correct.)


  6. What are two of the other creatures that dinosaur experts said lived at the same time as the dinosaurs? (frogs, turtles, insects, crocodiles, mammals, or birds)


Part 2: The Final Sketch


  1. What suggestion did a member of the stamp committee make as Gurney was working on his final painting? (The member of the stamp committee suggested that Gurney might find more stamps in the scenes at the margins of his painting.)


  2. What scene that Gurney thought might make a good stamp ended up not being used? (the scene that shows the dinosaur hatchlings)


  3. Why, do you think, was Gurney thrilled to be chosen to design the new dinosaur stamps? (Answers will vary; accept reasoned responses.)


  4. In the story, what does the word perforation mean? (holes made in a sheet of stamps to make it easier to separate individual stamps from the sheet)


Sequencing -- Write the following statements on a board or chart, or on individual strips of paper or oak tag. Invite students to arrange the statements in order so they tell the story of James Gurney and his "The World of Dinosaur" stamps.

(Note: For younger students, you might edit the activity to include only the first five statements shown below.)

Gurney sketched a scene that included the head of a T. rex and the bodies of three other dinosaurs.(3)

James Gurney was chosen to design new dinosaur stamps for the United States Postal Service. (1)

Gurney talked to dinosaur experts before he started his final painting.(6)

Gurney sketched two new scenes that included ten dinosaurs. (5)

"The World of Dinosaurs" stamps were printed so they could go on sale May 1, 1997.(10)

Gurney decided where perforation holes would be placed on his dinosaur stamp scene. (9)

Gurney went to work painting a scene that included predators, dinosaur hatchlings, and a dinosaur fossil.(7)

Members of the stamp committee asked Gurney to create a scene that would include four dinosaurs. (2)

One stamp committee member asked Gurney to find five other stamps in the scene he painted. (8)

Gurney was asked to do a sketch that included more dinosaurs. (4)

Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 2004 Education World


Originally published 07/11/1997
Links last updated 09/21/2004