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Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith



Award-winning bio of Darwin as a family man is a bit dry.

What parents need to know

Educational value

A brief and very introductory discussion of Darwins' theory of natural selection; and a good overall description of life -- cultural, religious, and scientific -- in Victorian England.

Positive messages

This biography probably won't inspire any young readers to become scientists, although it does glorify the life of the mind;  nor is it particularly inspirational to those of religious faith. It may inspire some readers to be kind and attentive parents.

Positive role models

The relationship between Charles and Emma, both with competing belief systems, reveals a partnership based on love rather than a union based on similar beliefs and conformity to expectations. They are both devoted parents.


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.

Not applicable

One of the Darwins' sons, at the age of 6, calls his father an "old ass."

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Drinking, drugs, & smoking
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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.

Parents say

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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.

Families can talk 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?

Book details

Author:Deborah Heiligman
Book type:Non-Fiction
Publisher:Henry Holt & Company, Inc.
Publication date:December 23, 2008
Number of pages:272
Publisher's recommended age(s):12 - 17

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Teen, 14 years old Written bygrace.martin October 31, 2014

Intriguing and Amazing Story

Charles has science. He likes to ponder evolution and the origin of our reality. However, he also wants to have a family with Emma. Emma has religion. She is satisfied with the Bible's explanation for creation, and her faith is her life. But she wants Charles to be a part of her life, too. So the scientist and the christian get married and have children. And they all live happily ever after, right? Wrong. This affects both Charles religious doubts and Emma's faith. Have you ever seen anything like this? A scientist who began a revolution marries his christian cousin in 1859? No, I didn't think so. This book is amazing, and though it has a slow start, if you stick with the story you'll be rewarded.
What other families should know
Educational value
Great messages
Great role models
Teen, 13 years old Written bysomeee personnn July 14, 2011

educational..........really insightful

i thought Charles and Emma was pretty good!! i had to read it for school, and while im pretty sure no child in their right mind would read this for recreation, it is a really good educational book. the whole time I was thinking "wowwwww where did they get all of this information on him!!!" lots of details (: there's not really much in the way of "positive role models" or anything inappropriate, but its just soooooooooo educational. its a nice book!!


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