Book Flight: Discovering Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin is one of the most important philosophical and scientific thinkers of the 19th (and 20th) centuries.   Our renewed fascination with him began with a Mother/Daughter trip to the Galapagos several years ago, and after reading The Voyage of the Beagle (and being immediately captivated by both the man and the science) we started to see him everywhere in both science and literature. Intriguing resources for his life and work can be found for all ages in picture books, graphic novels, fiction, essays, and biographies.

Young collectors will find a like-minded soul as they read about the young Darwin’s shelves of specimens from nature; the littlest experimenters will delight in his chemistry experiments (especially those that went awry); and young (and old) philosophers will be touched by his struggles to mingle his scientific and religious beliefs.  We’ve culled a beginning list to whet the appetite of everyone in the family… (and to extend the adventure, check out: Go See Some Evolution,  Since Darwin, More Darwin Resources, and Define Theory ).


Family Read-aloud

DarwinDarwin by Alice McGinty, illustrated by Mary Azarian

This is a very appealing biography of Darwin, and a great family read-aloud.  It is a compelling story of his love of nature and his curiosity that was present as a young child and persisted through his entire life. Readers get a taste of his early life, his education, and a lucid description of his time on the Beagle as well as the power of his theory of evolution. The format of the book also makes it one to pore over and talk about.  The font is large and easy to read, and the primary source excerpts are handwritten from his journal.   Mary Azarian’s woodcuts, always gorgeous, are particularly appropriate here.  A wonderful introduction for the whole family.


Young Kids

We’re Sailing to GalapagosWe’re Sailing to GalapagosWe’re Sailing to the Galapagos by Laurie Krebs

A great introduction to the wonders of the exotic animals Darwin discovered in the Galalagos–perfect for toddlers.  In a colorful, rhyming picture book, children explore the days of the week while learning about blue-footed boobies,  giant tortoises, and black iguanas.    The brightly-colored collage illustrations draw in the youngest audience as they chant the refrain “We’re going to the Galapagos!  What will we see!”   Also included are some fascinating facts on Charles Darwin as well as information about this incredible set of islands.


Early Readers

What Darwin Saw: The Journey That Changed the WorldWhat Darwin Saw: The Journey That Changed the WorldWhat Mr. Darwin Saw:  The Journey that Changed the Worldby Rosalind Schanzer

Finding engaging, well-illustrated nonfiction books for young children is not easy.  If you’re looking for easy-to-understand books about Darwin, this one should top your list.  The illustrations are so enticing that even young readers who can’t read all the words on their own can gain a lot of information, and will be “hooked” to want to learn more. Something all parents and teachers can appreciate is the respectful stance toward children as learners, including interesting scientific details, notes of explanation, and excerpts from journals, diaries, and letters.  It’s also an adventure story, as readers join Darwin the explorer on his voyage.  The book ends with a double-page map showing the Beagle’s route and stops along the way. Published by National Geographic  Children’s  Books division, this is a wonderful addition to the home or school library.


Tween & Early Adolescent
The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin (New York Times Best Illustrated Books (Awards))The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin (New York Times Best Illustrated Books (Awards))The Tree of Life:  Charles Darwin by Peter Sis

Winner of the New York Times Best Illustrated Books Award, this impressive book is another one you’ll want to add to your home library for older children.  Children and adults can spend hours entranced by the pen-and-ink and watercolor illustrations.  The unique format features double strands of narrative, and is told from both Charles Darwin and his father’s perspectives.  There are also insights from the voyage of the Beagle,  excerpts form his journals and diaries, and  surprising tidbits about his family life.  Perfect for children as young as fourth-grade, this fascinating account will also intrigue middle-schoolers, older teens–and adult readers too.


The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

Meet Calpurnia.  She’s smart as a whip, and hates being pigeonholed into learning only girlie things and having her whole goal in life be to one day be a good wife. And as the only girl in a family of 7 boys, at the turn of the century (20th century, that is), she’s very much expected to concentrate on girl things.  She knows that that’s not the life for her, but like most 11 year olds, she does not yet know where her path lies–ntil she begins to spend some time with her Grandfather who is an amateur naturalist, and together they identify an new plant species.  Callie awakens to her own blossoming identity as a scientist after reading The Origin on Species, but it is her own evolution that draws the reader in and leaves us hoping that there will be a sequel.  Until the author decides to give us one, chances are good that if you liked Calpurnia, you’ll also like Lucky:


The Higher Power of LuckyThe Higher Power of LuckyThe Higher Power of Lucky and Lucky BreaksLucky Breaks by Susan Patron

When we meet Lucky in the first of the series (2007 Newbery award winner), she is 10 years old and living in a small desert  mining town in California, cared for by her father’s first wife Brigitte.  When Lucky’s mother dies, her father sent for his French ex-wife to come and be his daughter’s guardian.  Lucky is a wonderful, many-dimensioned character who appreciates the diversity of her community, both the people and the environment.   The connection to Charles Darwin? He is her hero!  She takes him as her mentor as she explores the natural word, collecting insect specimens and studying biology daily.  Her dog is even named HMS Beagle.  Lucky BreaksLucky Breaks is a wonderful sequel, superior to the first, with even more connections to Darwin in the lists Lucky makes comparing her life with Darwin,  and her  adventures with grown-up geologists who come to her home town.


Young Adult
Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman

This amazing book was written for young adults, but any book that starts with a rational list of the pros and cons of getting married (ever – he doesn’t even have a specific person in mind yet) and has pros such as “object to be beloved and played with-better than a dog anyhow” and cons like “less money for books” appeals instantly to adults!  Darwin decides that the benefits of marriage outweigh the negative aspects, and soon proposes to his cousin Emma.  Their long and loving marriage is examined in this thoughtful and beautifully written and researched book.  Most fascinating, both from a scientific and a relationship perspective, is how her faith (and his own) and his respect for both her and her beliefs troubled him deeply as he was compiling evidence to support his ideas on evolution.


Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species: A Graphic AdaptationCharles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species: A Graphic AdaptationCharles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species:  A Graphic Adaptation by Michael Keller, illustrated by Nicole Rager Fuller

A graphic adaptation of Darwin’s theories?  Yes, and an example of stunning scientific writing.  The book begins by creating the context:  Charles Darwin has just returned from this voyage on the Beagle, and is asked to describe what he has learned.  What follows is a detailed, chapter-by-chapter unpacking of The Origin of the Species, along with information on his correspondence with other thinkers of the day and references to his personal life.  A biology teacher who reviewed the book told us it would be a terrific high school text, much more informative and accessible than what most adolescents have access to in classrooms.  The illustrations are both beautiful to look at and instructive scientifically.


Adults of All Ages

The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin

This book isn’t on the list because it’s a classic, or that the western canon has dictated that we should read famous people in their own words.  It’s here because it is a wonderful book, equal parts science journal, coming of age tale, travelogue and even poetry.  Darwin was a brilliant man, but also a compassionate and inquisitive person, and his thoughts on the human condition are as interesting as the insight into his scientific journey.  This record of his 5 year journey on the H.M.S. Beagle is a wonderful book in its own right, and doubly so in making us realize that the poet and the scientist can and should co-exist in us all.  And once you finish the book and want more, there’s always The Origin of Species.


The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution (Great Discoveries)The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution (Great Discoveries)The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of this Theory of Evolution by  David Quammen

Science journalist David Quammen writes a contemporary biography of Charles Darwin, focused on his years after the voyage of the Beagle.  In this “half-biography,” Quammen tells fascinating stories about Darwin’s continued scientific experiments to flesh out his new theories (such as floating asparagus seeds in saltwater to explain how plants moved from one continent to another; and raising pigeons, theorizing that domestic varieties could be traced back to a species of wild dove).  In addition, the book is also about the Victorian reaction to these new theories and how Darwin’s personalty and life situation influenced his sharing and publishing of his work.  Readers who are intrigued by Charles Darwin the man, the scientist, and the thinker will appreciate the deft writing and satisfying story that come through in this new biography.

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