Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Earth Day, a good time to redeem myself after yesterday's on-line hissy fit. Thank goodness there are far more fabulous books out there than aforementioned self-published dreck (I know, I know, there is some very well done self-published non-dreck) and Peter Sis's books are great examples of innovative non-fiction for kids.

In honour of the fact many of Charles Darwin's works are now on-line, I thought I'd take another peek at Sis's The Tree of Life (which has a subtitle reminiscent of the fabulously long titles of Darwin's time: A Book Depicting the life of Charles Darwin: Naturalist, Geologist & Thinker.) (Thanks to BookNinja, by the way, for alerting me to the Darwin archive and this article re. the release.) Using wonderfully detailed illustrations -- a Sis version of Where's Waldo and I Spy books, but much more beautifully rendered of course -- he introduces young readers to Darwin's life, his work, and some of his discoveries and ideas.

Here's Sis's Author's Note from the beginning of the book:

Charles Darwin regretted that he hadn't learned to draw. Instead, he kept detailed descriptions of everything he saw. It is these dense and vivid written passages in his diaries, letters and journals that have inspired me to use my own drawings, based on contemporary sources, to tell this story of his life. The text in my visualization of Darwin's diary entries has been freely condensed from his various writings about the voyage of the Beagle. Other sources for quotations and information include Darwin's autobiography, his letters, and the first edition of On the Origin of Species.

Sis takes us through Darwin's life story with the use of sketches, captioned illustrations, lists, diary entries, etc. We see Darwin as a child right through to his death. One of the most interesting spreads explained Darwin's serendipitous assignment as naturalist on the Beagle. We learn of his father's displeasure and how (with help from his maternal uncle Josiah Wedgewood), his father finally relented. On this spread Sis has used list to explain Father's Objections (e.g., That it would be a useless undertaking.) and then Practical Arrangements (e.g., case of strong good pistols; book on taxidermy; bible). Then we launch into his journey for several spreads followed by his life back in England, trying to piece it all together. (After the voyage, Sis clevery describes Darwin's activities into three parts: Public, Private, and Secret ("his developing a theory about the evolution and adaptation of species.)

Although I found the detailed drawings and explanations of his journey captivating -- and I'm sure younger readers will as well -- I'm not convinced that children will make the necessary leaps as to how he used these observations in his development of the ideas of natural selection. As I've written before, I think explaining natural selection and evolution is tricky and, in that vein, it can be such a challenge to distill it down. (Will young readers understand words such as adaptation and selection for instance?) So, while learning about Darwin's observations and discoveries on the Voyage of the Beagle are interesting in their own right, I'm not sure kids will make the connections between some of the things he'd seen on the voyage and his eventual development of the theory of evolution by natural selection. Of course Darwin took years to do this and he also incorporated other observations into this mix and I'm glad Sis included his (many) years after the Voyage as well. (As a side note, I was happy to see that Sis mention how Darwin spent eight years studying barnacles after his return. I always thought that was kind of quirky!)

Having said all this, I found this partial review by Roger Sutton at The Horn Book in the article The Ones That Got Away: Great Books That Didn't Get Their Due by Rick Margolis, in which Sutton makes a good point:

"Published to great reviews but no awards, Peter Sís’s The Tree of Life (Farrar/Frances Foster Bks., 2003) confounded those who wanted a straightforward explanation of evolution. Instead, the book is a remarkable joining of two imaginations, Sís’s and Darwin’s, hard at work to show us that scientific investigation is anything but straightforward. It instead requires the intense scrutiny of apparently disparate phenomena—just like this book.—Roger Sutton, The Horn Book"

(Yes, I agree, but I think this further points to how this book is definitely not a picture book for really young readers -- I think it's best suited for kids in the upper grades of elementary school and even beyond.) Quibbles aside, I think the book is a wonderful introduction to the life of one of our world's most important scientists and thinkers. His ideas (and of course those of Alfred Russel Wallace, who eventually came up with the same ideas, but was never as widely recognized) were indeed revolutionary and as the years go on are strengthened. The Teacher's Guide for this title is an added bonus, and will help strengthen many of the ideas introduced in the book. (Another reason why we need engaged and interested teachers and librarians in schools -- this book can bring you to a whole other level with wonderful instruction and discussion.)

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