February 2009

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Celebrating Darwin

In this anniversary year for Charles Darwin (two hundred years for his birth and one hundred fifty for the publication of On the Origin of Species) it is entirely appropriate that he should be celebrated by readers and scientists of all ages. For the younger set One Beetle Too Many by Kathryn Lasky and Charles Darwin by Alan Gibbons (nicely illustrated in a realistic fashion by Leo Brown) are both fictionalized accounts of his life to be embraced. Lasky begins with Darwin’s childhood and the delight of growing up in a house where the words “Don’t Touch” were never used. Matthew Trueman’s rather whimsical illustrations show how much nature appealed to him even as a small boy and provide a great deal of humor.

Alternatively, from the first chapter Gibbon’s book quickly moves to his adventures on the Beagle. In both cases the authors discuss the fascinating animals Darwin saw, his geologic observations and early discoveries which eventually led to later publications on evolution. Lasky brings the scientist home where he struggled with his theories and how they could fit in a mid-nineteenth century religious world. Gibbons ends his fictional narrative with the Beagle expedition although he then provides multiple pages with photographs on specimens from the journey, extinct animals and other nineteenth century scientists. One Beetle Too Many works best for younger readers who don’t mind a wordy tale while Charles Darwin is excellent for middle grade readers who already show an interest in the outdoors (the cover design with an inset butterfly is particularly enchanting).

For teens, the perfect Darwin title is not so easy to discover. That is why I was so pleased to read Deborah Heiligman’s new biography, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith which provides an excellent overview of the naturalist’s work while highlighting his family life as well. She manages to show not only how Darwin developed his controversial theory of evolution but also how he maintained a successful and loving marriage to a solidly religious woman, and how they both weathered the loss of several children without succumbing to catastrophic grief. This is by far one of the more human books on Darwin I have read as it addresses not the grand adventure but the long period after the Beagle that preceded publication. That period, which often gets conflated to a sentence or two in general history books, was crucial to his development as a scientist.

Using letters from both of the Darwins and those of their family and friends Heiligman does an excellent job here of showing the many intersections of Darwin’s personal and professional life. Most interestingly, she also writes extensively about how committed Charles was to the ideas of natural selection and evolution while Emma remained steadfastly a Christian whose faith in God’s creation of the world was unwavering. Her concern for her husband’s eternal soul in the wake of his discoveries is ever present, but so is her lifelong support of his work and writing. Heiligman makes this man -- who has been larger than life for a century and a half -- a person that anyone can identify with and feel for. Reading his work is important, but Charles and Emma is a whole new way of considering Darwin. It’s a very elegantly written, emotional story. It brings the great man down to earth, a place where teenagers in particular will enjoy meeting him for the first time.

If he had been born over a hundred years earlier, conservationist George Schaller would likely have found himself right at home in Darwin’s circle of friends. As Pamela Turner recounts so effectively in her heavily illustrated biography of him, A Life in the Wild, Schaller is a man who dedicated himself to saving animals around the world. His field research has been credited with helping to save creatures as varied as the Mountain Gorillas of Central Africa, the Snow Leopards of the Himalayas and the Chinese Panda. He was a member of the original team, with Olaus Murie, whose expedition report on the Alaskan wilderness led to the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It was from that expedition, Turner writes, that Schaller learned the model for his career: “exploration, rigorous science, passionate conservations, and a deep, heartfelt connection to wild places and wild animals.”

Turner, whose other titles include the excellent Gorilla Doctors: Saving Endangered Great Apes, breaks Schaller’s career down into chapters organized by location and following a chronological order. She moves from his education and early field research in Alaska to the Congo, Central India, East Africa, the Himalayas, China and the Tibetan Plateau. Accompanied into the wild often by his wife and sons (who lived with him in all sorts of exotic conditions for months or years at a time), Turner paints a picture of a naturalist whose patient study of his subjects and careful recordkeeping is a model for both professional and amateur conservationists. As she explains, “many other scientists were inspired by George’s research and his techniques were eventually used to study animals ranging from orangutans to hammerhead sharks.” With her highly readable text and a clearly felt interest in her subject, Turner has done a first rate job of introducing George Schaller to teens. Photographs from throughout his career appear on each page and help to transport readers around the world with Schaller. This is a must read for any teen interested in a wildlife or a conservation career.

Tim Gallagher, editor of Living Bird, is well regarded for his previous book about the discovery of the long thought extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Grail Bird. His latest title, Falcon Fever blends several genres and although published for adults, is perfect for teens. In the text, Gallagher traces his lifelong interest in falconry and the many birds he has trained and hunted with over the years. He also writes compellingly about Frederick II, the 13th century Holy Roman Emperor who was a legendary falconer and literally wrote the book on the subject. Frederick was a hero of Gallagher’s since his youth and in writing this book he not only deeply researched his subject but also set out on a sometimes difficult (if often comically told) adventure to retrace many of his famous footsteps. Readers get not only an excellent contemporary look at falconry but also a deep discussion of its past and the tragic story of the man who would be king and his struggle (from teenhood) to hold his kingdom.

The most appealing facet of Falcon Fever for me however was also the most surprising one. Gallagher has a very intense personal story to tell about his childhood in California, the many painful struggles with his difficult father and then his own turbulent adolescence that ended with a stint in jail on drug charges. It is clear while reading about his childhood that falconry --and the people and birds that Gallagher met through the sport -- saved his life. They gave him something to dream about and pin his hopes on and, quite simply, spend time doing while his homelife went to hell. If nothing else, through everything else, Gallagher had the time he spent outside with birds he loved and continues to write about with an aura of respect that makes clear how significant they were to his life. This makes Falcon Fever not only a solid choice as an outdoor title but even more so a great coming-of-age story that should have broad appeal to anyone who has ever searched for a reason to hang on and found it in the most unlikely of places. After reading Falcon Fever I hope readers will seek out Grail Bird as well so they can follow Gallagher’s further adventures in the birding field.

Ornithology fans should also note the new Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds of North America, a visual stunner that is hard to take your eyes off of. With illustrations of birds in a variety of poses and seasons it makes bird watching an irresistible pleasure. In terms of design it is also exceedingly well done as the binding lies flat when opened which allows for ease of use. With lots of maps, vivid descriptions (both in text and illustration), phonetic presentation of individual calls and a bird list of similar species, this is the general guide to buy. It is both useful and pleasing to the eye, something not altogether common for these titles.

Finally, Robert Winston has a very nice new encyclopedia from DK, Evolution Revolution. With big, bold collages comprised of photographs, shifting text sizes and fonts, and all manner of quirky scientific presentations, this is a very compelling look at Darwin, the work of other naturalists and their work. Winston discusses why some animals are born with reduced pigment and how similar animals evolve differently in different locations. Subjects as diverse as Gregor Mendel’s pea plant experiments to the evolution of bee colonies is explored on vividly colored double-page spreads that draw the reader in with irresistible graphics and slowly, unpretentiously, lead the curious along a grand scientific story.

DK continues to impress me with their 21st century design that has transformed the encyclopedia format. Winston is a perfect partner for this study on evolution that concludes in the modern era and brings Darwin and his research into our everyday lives. I can’t recommend Evolution Revolution enough as the book for kids studying Darwin and an excellent supplement to the dreariness of the average earth science classroom. Well done!

For further reading on naturalist subjects I strongly recommend The Voyage of the Beetle by Anne Weaver from the University of New Mexico Press. Written from the fanciful perspective of a beetle who accompanied Darwin on his voyage, this title is the clearest explanation of natural selection yet that I have come across for middle grade readers. As for titles I have not read but look forward to, consider Sea Cows, Shamans and Scurvy by Ann Arnold, the story of Georg Wilhelm Steller, Alaska’s first naturalist and for high school readers, the very well received Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson by Elizabeth Rosenthal. On the horizon is what looks to be a delightful middle grade novel, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly about a young girl discovering the natural world around her at the turn of the last century.

For more recommendations and literary discussion check out my site, chasingray.com or guyslitwire.com, where two dozen posters review titles five days a week for teenage boys.

Cool Read: Sandra Markle has an outstanding series of naturalist picture books out that highlights animal discoveries during famous explorations. Her first title Animals Christopher Columbus Saw: An Adventure in the New World was published in earlier last year and most recently Chronicle released Animals Robert Scott Saw: An Adventure in Antarctica. I came to the new book expecting a lot as I am familiar with the research gathered on Scott’s two expeditions. Markle proved she has done her homework and then some by writing extensively not only about the data and samples gathered about penguins but also the ponies and dogs Scott’s men worked with and the many animals they observed and hunted. She peppers the straightforward historic narrative with excerpts from diaries and reports as well as outstanding photographs (the sea sponges are incredible) and copies of paintings and sketches by the crew (most notably Dr. Edward Wilson’s well regarded bird studies). Readers learn not only about what Scott and his men hoped to do (and the tragedy of his second expedition) but also how dedicated the men were to science even in the most extreme conditions. The illustrations all have a period feel and perfectly complement the text and Markle effectively keeps the narrative centered on her nature message while also explaining the difficulties the men experienced. From a look at pony snowshoes to a brief overview to the infamous “worst journey in the world,” Markle succinctly introduces would-be biologists, artists and explorers to Scott’s story. Her next title in the series, The Animals Charles Darwin Saw is due out in April.