October 2003

Heeding the call of the wild

By Peter Sís
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With The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin, award-winning children's author and illustrator Peter Sís offers a top-notch picture book biography for young readers. Sís, who has also written about Galileo and Columbus, says he aims to discover "the human element" behind each hero, and he succeeds here. He starts the story off with a bang, beginning on February 12, 1809: "Charles Darwin opens his eyes for the first time! He has no idea that he will (a) start a revolution when he grows up, (b) sail around the world on a five-year voyage, (c) spend many years studying nature, and (d) write a book that will change the world." How's that for an attention-grabbing opener?

Readers then learn how Darwin's mother died when he was eight, how his father wanted him to be a doctor, or failing that, a clergyman. Young Charles, however, preferred shooting, riding, collecting beetles and exploring the countryside. In fact, when Darwin was asked to voyage aboard the Beagle as a naturalist, his father objected, and only through the mediation of an uncle was he allowed to go. Sís seamlessly blends myriad details into the story and into his illustrations. For instance, it's remarkable to learn that aboard the Beagle, Darwin occasionally became seasick. Only lying in a hammock and eating raisins gave him comfort. He also grew tremendously homesick during the journey. Darwin once wrote that he wished he had learned to draw. But Sís draws as though he were Darwin, using text from the naturalist's writings, as well as maps and charts on each page.

Later in the book, Sís divides the naturalist's life into public, private and "secret" including his work on trying to prove his theories about evolution with all three categories appearing on the same page, so readers can quickly grasp how events coincide. In lesser hands, such cataloging might become dull, but Sís never loses sight of the magic of the man.

Finally, Sís never preaches he lets the details and the story speak strongly for themselves. Here is a book that will entertain and educate readers time after time.

Alice Cary is a contributing editor for Biography magazine.

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