Saturday, February 21, 2009

Charles Darwin's 200th

Abraham Lincoln and Edgar Allen Poe are not the only people with 200th birthday anniversaries this year. This month marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin on February 12, 1809.

Just in time for the celebration are two new Darwin biographies: Animals Charles Darwin Saw: An Around the World-Adventure by Sandra Markle and illustrated by Zina Saunders (2009 Chronicle Books, San Francisco) and What Darwin Saw: The Journey that Changed the World by Rosalyn Schanzer (2009 National Geographic, DC)

Both books are well-researched, illustrated biographies containing bibliographies, resources, maps and indexes. (I was going to type indices, but WikiAnswers assures me that indices is only to be used when dealing with an over-50 "fuddy duddy." Who knew?) Animals Charles Darwin Saw, also includes a glossary.

Both are suitable for middle school students and contain enough information to equal a larger-print, small chapter book. The two books tell the same story employing different strategies. Markle's book relates Darwin's finding of prehistoric bones in this way,

"Before Darwin, people did not believe that animals changed over time. But after Darwin stumbled on some strange bones, he started thinking. He thought about the many different kinds of wildlife he had observed and how the animals seemed well suited to the environments in which they lived. He began to wonder whether animals did change over time, developing the characteristics they needed to survive and prosper."

In comic book style panels, Schanzer's book relates the same information using many of Darwin's own words,

"Darwin finds: 'a large piece of covering like that of the Armadillo, but of gigantic size,'... 'an immense Mastodon, which must have abounded over the whole country,' ... 'It is impossible to reflect on the changed state of the American continent without the deepest astonishment. Formerly it must have swarmed with great monsters: now we find mere pigmies.'"

Both books are generously illustrated. Animals Charles Darwin Saw contains naturally-colored, double-spread watercolor and ink illustrations with small text printed over the paintings. What Darwin Saw is more brightly colored and comic, employing panels of varying sizes and using thought bubbles and brown print to designate Darwin's actual comments.
Bottom line: both books do a fine job of relaying a difficult concept in a manner that is both engaging and understandable to young readers. I hope more teachers will embrace the concept of "picture book" nonfiction.

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