Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin!

Lynn: Charles Darwin was born February 12, 1809, a birthday shared with Abraham Lincoln. Deborah Heiligman begins this biography not with Darwin’s birth but with his debate about whether to marry. The result is a fresh and unique book that allows readers not only to know the Darwins but also to understand Charles’ scientific thought process, learn about his pivotal theory and understand the context and culture in which it was formed. Charles and Emma (Henry Holt, 2008) is carefully crafted, meticulously documented and filled with fascinating details that enliven the time. Most remarkable of all is that through the focus on their relationship, these two brilliant individuals shine from the pages, emerging fully developed and feel as familiar as members of our own family. Equally fascinating is the depiction of the single issue with which Emma and Charles differed, religion, and how the struggle to reconcile that issue affected Darwin’s thinking and the publication of his theory. It is noteworthy that the struggle between science and faith is as hotly debated today as it was in 1859 and that Darwin’s theory, misunderstood by many people, continues to suffer that same misunderstanding today. The discussion of this issue will be appreciated by thoughtful teens in this most accessible and entertaining book. Deborah Heiligman sets a very high standard for 2009 nonfiction!

Cindy: I’ve only read a few chapters of Charles and Emma, but I’m fascinated by the Franklin chart of Marry/Not Marry that Darwin devised to help him make that important decision. This NPR’s Morning Edition had an interview with Deborah Heiligman that I heard on the way to work. I can’t wait to watch their story unfold in this unique take on Darwin’s work. Other responsibilities kept me from finishing it in time for today’s 200th anniversary but I did read another new Darwin book just in time (thank goodness for picture books!) Kathryn Lasky’s One Beetle Too Many: The Extraordinary Adventures of Charles Darwin (Candlewick, 2009) was published in January, in time to join the celebration. I’m often leery of picture book versions of biographies, concepts, historical events, etc. that should wait for older readers (think Thoreau and Walden Pond) but this one makes a difficult subject accessible for older elementary school readers. The incredible and often comic illustrations by Matthew Trueman will draw in children who will find dried flowers and leaves and other nature bits included in the mixed media collages. His beetle collecting started very early and it’s clear he was a close observer of nature from a young age. Never a willing classroom student, his focus on his personal interests served him well (marrying into a rich family didn’t hurt either!) Here’s to a very happy birthday to the man who claimed to be “a complete millionaire in odd and curious facts.”

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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