A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this National Book Award Finalist and Printz Honor book is an educational read more than a recreational one. Charles’ voyage on the Beagle takes place before the book begins, and the story starts when he decides to get married. A very good overview of Victorian life for the educated, upper class family is given. Due to lack of better health care, the Darwins lose three of their 10 children to illnesses. Charles also was often sick, and underwent some curious types of cures.
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What's the story?
This biography focuses on Darwin’s adult family life and marriage, as well as the books he writes. The narrative style and the copious use of letters and diary entries make it read more like fiction, but it's still the story of an adult in Victorian England who inherits enough money to indulge in scientific study and write books (including The Origin of the Species) while raising a large family -- he and Emma have ten children, three of whom die of childhood illnesses. Emma, an educated and intelligent woman, may not accept all her husband's views, but she's a loving partner and becomes his best editor. The book includes photographs, family trees, pages of source notes, and a bibliography.
Is it any good?
Exhaustive background details about life in the Victorian age bring this biography more vividly to life, but this will still be a rather dry story for most readers. The focus is really on how Darwin reconciles his novel ideas of creation with those of the mostly religious society around him, including his devout wife, and what his family life was like at home.
Details such as learning that Gregor Mendel’s work was going on at the same time (Darwin and Mendel were unaware of each other’s theories), and stories of Charles studying his own offspring add some interest. More of a focus on Darwin's travels might have made the story more lively. The anticipated controversy that Darwin dreaded when he finally published his work was not so great, and comes across as anticlimatic. The wealth the Darwins inherited takes the story out of the realm of everyman, and lessens the urgency of the work. Older readers who love biographies may enjoy this one.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the process of scientific discovery; are there fields left today that are wide open to new theories? Has evolutionary biology had any effect on other fields of study, such as medicine or psychology? Is the theory of evolution accepted today, or is it debated?
What types of things are you most interested in, and do you think you could make a living exploring those subjects?
What was Charles Darwin afraid might happen if he proposed that evolution changed creatures over time, not that God had created every creature as it was? Did those fears come true?
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