March 29, 2011

Behind the Book: Learning from history—and experimenting outdoors

Behind the Book by
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"Do you know what building this is?” I ask a gym full of third graders as I direct their attention to my next slide.

“Empire State Building!” several voices call out. (Good start. Sometimes kindergarteners think it’s the Eiffel Tower.)

“Exactly! Any idea how old it is?”

“A hundred years,” someone yells. “Ten years,” another guesses.

A boy in front raises his hand excitedly. Maybe he’s a kid who’s really into history, I think. Maybe he’ll nail it on the first try.

I call on him. “How many years old do you think it is?”

“Five thousand!”

Right. Well, therein lies one reason I like to write books that tie into historical anniversaries. Anniversaries help give kids a touchstone—a way to make sense of all that amorphous past that happened before they were born.

It’s a start if, after I visit a school, children can remember a few things: there are cars in the illustrations of Sky Boys, the Empire State Building book set in 1931, but none in Apples to Oregon, a pioneer tale set in 1847; or that not every black-and-white photograph of a man with a beard is a president. More importantly, I hope students continue to find ways to connect with and understand the lives of those who have lived before us.

In addition to Sky Boys, written for the 75th anniversary of the Empire State Building, I’ve published a book on Matthew Henson, co-discoverer of the North Pole in 1909 and Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek, in honor of the Lincoln bicentennial in 2009.

And that brings me to my new book, The Humblebee Hunter, inspired by the life and experiments of Charles Darwin with his children at Down House.

All right. I know. All this talk of anniversaries and I’m a year late. Anyone who was paying attention to the Lincoln hoopla last year knows that Darwin and Lincoln were born on the same day—February 12, 1809.

Sometimes that’s just the way it goes.

Besides, Charles Darwin—as a transformative thinker and scientist, a lifelong naturalist and as a father and family man—is worth reading and writing about in any year.

I first began research on Darwin for a biography for young readers I published in 2005 entitled Who Was Charles Darwin? Among my valuable resources were biographer Janet Browne’s two volumes on Darwin, Voyaging and The Power of Place. (I recommend both, along with Darwin, Discovering the Tree of Life by Niles Eldridge, curator of the American Museum of Natural History.)

Actually, it was visiting the Darwin exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in June 2006 that inspired me to write a picture book about Darwin’s family life. (It’s not the same as seeing a Galapagos turtle in person, but you can still access the exhibit online.)

As I turned a corner of the exhibit and came upon the recreation of Darwin’s study at Down House, I stopped short, transported into the epicenter of Darwin’s creative life.

This is where he wrote and worked, I thought. Here was a desk crowded with papers, pens and a microscope. And there was his comfy old armchair near the hearth, where he wrote using a cloth-covered board set across the arms. There were shelves crowded with notes for the Origin of Species. And, of course, a bed by the fire for his dog, Polly.

One could almost imagine Darwin here. But it wouldn’t have been Down House without something else—the clatter of children’s feet and the noisy, happy racket of young voices.

Charles and Emma Darwin had 10 children, seven of whom lived to adulthood. And while Darwin never traveled far after returning from his legendary voyage, biographer Janet Browne describes Down House itself as a kind of Beagle, “a self-contained, self-regulating scientific ship.”

While Emma ran things efficiently, Darwin could work in his “cabin”—his study. The children and Darwin’s numerous, far-flung correspondents became a kind of crew, ready to help with a wide variety of natural history experiments from flowers to pigeons, from worms to bees.

Bees were a favorite Darwin subject, and Darwin’s articles on bees are still cited today. In Voyaging, Browne writes that watching her husband bending over a flower, “Emma got the feeling that Darwin would have liked to be a bee above all other species.”

I was fortunate when working on The Humblebee Hunter to have the guidance of talented editor Tamson Weston at Hyperion, who paired the manuscript with gorgeous illustrations by artist Jen Corace that capture the love and warmth of the Darwin family at Down House. The story begins this way:

One summer afternoon, Mother and Cook tried to teach me to bake a honey cake.
But raspberries glistened in the sun, and birds brushed the air with song.
More than anything, I wanted to be outside.
Then, out the window, I saw Father, home from walking on his Thinking Path.
He stopped in the kitchen garden and bent over the beans. He wanted to study the bees.
Mother smiled and brushed a speck of flower from my cheek.
“Henrietta, I think your father would become a bee, if he could. Just like them, he’s always busy.”

While we have descriptions of at least one bee experiment Darwin did with his children, I can’t be sure the experiment described in the fictional The Humblebee Hunter—counting the number of flowers a humblebee visits in a minute—is one that Darwin and his children did together.

But in a letter written to the British horticultural periodical, “The Gardener’s Chronicle” on August 16, 1841, Darwin describes the number of flowers he saw a humblebee (bumblebee) suck in one minute.

Like Darwin, I did research, involving my family on summer days, bending over flowers to watch bees at work. (My results were pretty close to Darwin’s but not always exact.)

So, any idea as to the number of blossoms a bumblebee visits in one minute?

You may have to wait for summer to experiment yourself.

In the meantime, here’s a hint: it’s not 5,000.

Deborah Hopkinson gardens and writes near Portland, Oregon, where she serves as vice president for advancement at Pacific Northwest College of Art. Visit her on the web at (And if you really want to know Darwin’s count, of course you should do research. The answer appears in Letter 607 in the Darwin Correspondence Project.)

Deborah Hopkinson

Get the Book

The Humblebee Hunter

The Humblebee Hunter

By Deborah Hopkinson
Hyperion Books for Children
ISBN 9781423113560

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