Dactyl Hill Squad

Book review by
Carrie R. Wheadon, Common Sense Media
Dactyl Hill Squad Book Poster Image
Civil War-era kids ride dinos in New York in curious mashup.

Parents say

age 2+
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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Much about the life and dangers faced by African American New Yorkers during the Civil War, especially the riots that targeted them and the organizations that worked to enslave them or keep them free. Glossary parses historical figures, events, organizations, and places from made-up ones, and offers further reading. Plus three more glossaries on dinosaurs, Civil War-era weapons mentioned, and common phrases of the time period (many of them clever insults). Some lines of Shakespeare, especially Richard III, and kids go see a production of The Tempest with all African American actors.

Positive Messages

Bravery, relying on and being loyal to friends. Relishing your talents and sharing them with the world. Understanding what's right -- equality, justice, dignity for all -- even at a chaotic time, and working toward it tirelessly.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Once Magdalys learns why it's important to be trustworthy and helpful to her "squad," she becomes a leader among them. A friend explains why she should value her gift and share her talents with the world. After that, Magdalys begins to understand her importance.  Diverse cast includes an African-Cuban main character and other characters of color, plus a quick mention that one teen may be transgender.


In climactic gun-dinosaur fight, dinosaurs eat people and other dinos -- the only gore described is a dino that gets throat torn out and another that gets his head half shot off. A fight at sea with guns and swords leaves slavers dead and loved ones kidnaped. Kids see beloved adult friend's charred body hanging after he's lynched. Three acts of arson where kids are present and in danger. Mention of riots where African Americans are lynched, beaten to death, and shot, and buildings burned down. Mentions that main character's sisters taken away and brother injured in war. Kids find out how parents died by reading their files. Many mentions that African Americans are rounded up and unlawfully sent back into slavery in the South.


"Damn" said a few times.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults drinking beer in bar, kids get warm milk. Mention that a man spent all his money on drink instead of feeding his dinosaur.  

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that this is the first book for tweens by the author of the popular young adult Shadowshaper series. Like the that series, this story is set in New York City and features African American and Latino characters. But here, the story is set during the Civil War era and throws in domesticated dinosaurs for a fantasy twist. The main character, African Cuban Magdalys, sees a theater and her orphanage burn during rioting, finds her adult friend lynched and burned, and hears that many other African Americans were killed or rounded up and sent back to slavery in the South. In a climactic gun-dinosaur fight, dinosaurs eat people and other dinos -- the only gore described is a dino's throat torn out and a dino's head half shot off. A fight at sea with guns and swords leaves slavers dead and loved ones kidnaped. Other mature content is mild: Adults drink beer and say "damn." Kids should check out the extensive glossary in the back to learn more about events, people, places, dinosaurs, and even old-fashioned guns mentioned.

User Reviews

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Parent of a 8-year-old Written bybjgp January 14, 2019

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What's the story?

In DACTYL HILL SQUAD, Magdalys and her friends from New York's Colored Orphan Asylum head to a Shakespeare play one evening on the orphanage's old triceratops. On the way, the corrupt city magistrate astride a knuckleskull threatens the group and urges them to turn around. Magdayls prays their triceratops will rear up and startle him -- and he does just that. And later when the theater begins to burn and her friend needs rescuing, the fire department's brachy understands her. And understands when Magdalys, the theater actors, and all her friends need to get somewhere safe. Rioting has broken out in New York City and African Americans are being targeted. The group heads to a safe house in Brooklyn, where they're given a place to stay and a job: to use dactyls to gather intel around the city and alert the safe house when African Americans are threatened in New York City. After the riots, many more have been kidnaped and sent South as slaves. Because of Magdalys' newfound talent to communicate with dinos, she's the best person for the job.

Is it any good?

It's a shame that a book with so fascinating a premise -- African American kids astride dinos in Civil War-era NYC -- is so poorly set up and executed. The many glossaries in the back of the book may hold more interest for readers, mostly because the writing is clear, the way it should be for middle graders. It seems like the story begins three chapters in. We know just a little about Magdalys and almost nothing about the kids that will be the Dactyl Hill Squad. And when the big rescue scene jumps hastily to "we're chimney sweep spies now" there will be more head-scratching. So much doesn't get developed. It allows for more action -- there's a whole lot of that -- but it's grounded in very little and, again, hard to follow, like a sketch instead of play-by-play.

Kids may still take a lot away from Dactyl Hill Squad, though. They'll get a new perspective on the Civil War era, a few dinosaur facts, and a great heroine who learns to embrace her talents and take pride in them like all kids should. Here's hoping the writing in the sequel gets a much finer polish.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Magdalys and her relationship to dinosaurs in Dactyl Hill Squad. What did the captive dinosaur represent to her? What does it represent in the book as a whole?

  • What did you learn about the lives of African American New Yorkers during the Civil War era?

  • Will you read the next in the series? What do you think will happen to Magdalys and her friends?

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