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Beetles and finches and worms, oh, my!

This year marks the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his ground-breaking book, “On the Origin of Species.”  Kathryn Lasky’s new illustrated biography, “One Beetle Too Many,” makes an appealing introduction for nine- to twelve-year-olds to the man and his “idea that scared the world.”

One of the most charming stories about Darwin gives Lasky her title. The young Darwin, a passionate collector of beetles, found two specimens he’d never seen before on a beetling expedition in the woods.  He picked up one in each hand and then spied a third unknown specimen crawling out from under the bark of a tree. Having run out of hands, he promptly popped the third one into his mouth for safekeeping!

Darwin’s years on the Beagle, a naval vessel charged with surveying the coast of South America, were filled with amazing discoveries, including fossils of prehistoric shellfish found 13,000 feet above sea level, and the famous Galapagos finches that helped him to understand the role of natural selection in evolution. 

Lasky does an admirable job tracing Darwin’s gradual formulation of his theory as he mulled over these discoveries.  She clearly depicts his reluctance to publish his ideas, in part because of his concern about his devout wife’s reaction.  After publication of his book, he was content to leave defense of his theory to his friend Thomas Huxley, known as “Darwin’s Bulldog,” while he himself continued studying barnacles, earthworms and carnivorous plants. Oversized, exaggerated illustrations by Matthew Trueman humanize Darwin and add a humorous note. 

Peter Sis takes a multi-layered approach in his award-winning book, “The Tree of Life: A Book Depicting the Life of Charles Darwin, Naturalist, Geologist & Thinker.”  Drawing on Darwin’s own journals, Sis has created lavishly detailed drawings of his discoveries during the Beagle voyage.  Back in England, Darwin’s life was divided into what Sis calls his public life (his work as a scientist), his private life (his marriage and happy family life with ten children), and his secret life (his gradual formulation of his theory of evolution).

Sis’s most spectacular illustration is a gatefold that opens up to show the “explosion” caused by publication of Darwin’s book.  A recreation of the title page of “On the Origin of Species” is surrounded by pictures of the Galapagos finches, portraits of other scientists who influenced Darwin, and quotes from his book, all spewing forth from a volcano representing Darwin’s fascination with geology.  Even the endpapers are decorated with people, places and creatures that contributed to Darwin’s thinking.  Readers ten and up, including adults, are sure to be entranced.

Introduce would-be naturalists to Kristan Lawson’s “Darwin and Evolution for Kids, His Life and Ideas with 21 Activities.”  Along with a thoughtful biography for readers ten and up are suggestions on how to make your own fossils or geological strata, calculate the number of human generations on earth, and conduct a mock debate based on the Scopes trial. 

Steve Jenkins’ “Life on Earth, The Story of Evolution” presents the scientific theory in simple, clear text and crisply designed illustrations using cut paper.  Visual learners will be struck by his clear representation of concepts like natural selection and mutation.  Eye-catching and thought-provoking, this makes a good introduction to the topic for readers eight and up.