Author and illustrator Peter Sis has written a beautiful book called The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin which follows Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle and re-creates the naturalist’s travel-stained maps and notebooks. The book was released in 2003, and got a gazillion awards, but I haven’t ever seen it in a bookstore. Of course, I’ve also been living in regions where children’s books on evolution are not, uh, the hot gift concept of the season (though such a gift would be a good way to get yourself disinvited from future juvenile birthday festivities).
Anyway, if you happen to need a present for a budding young naturalist, this is ideal. View the gorgeous animated excerpt here and see if you don’t agree!
A MacArthur “genius grant” winner, Sis has written many books, including Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei, and illustrated still more, such as Jorge Luis Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings. He has a quiet sense of absurdity, particularly about domestic life. Here’s his explanation of why he switched from pastel to watercolor:
I grew up behind the Iron Curtain. There was a shortage of everything (freedom most of all) — and only one kind of paper, one kind of ink, one kind of paint. I was one happy artist when I became an illustrator in the U.S.A. So many materials! I settled on oil pastels, which I scratched into. That created lots of residue, tiny pieces of paint everywhere. It didn’t matter as long as I was single. It started to matter a bit when I met my wife-to-be and we lived in a loft. It mattered a lot when we had our first baby. It mattered even more when Madeleine began to crawl. We built a wall, but I had nightmares about her getting into my paint thinner and X-Acto blades. I switched to watercolors, but I still wasn’t sure how safe they were. On the other hand, I found out that baby formula dissolves aquarelle. Madeleine loved it. I had to look for a studio outside the house. No more paints at home. I found myself a studio — a little apartment, really — with a kitchen.
I have to fix dinner every day at six p.m. Watercolors dry too slowly, but I can dry them in front of the oven, and bake while I’m drying my pictures. I notice people’s surprise when they meet me in the street carrying a bag smelling like a roast or a chicken. Some of the shapes on my pictures just might be sauce. Now that I have gotten used to watercolors, Madeleine paints at home (with oil). (Peter Sis, “Tiny Pieces of Paint“, in The Horn Book)
One of the most amusing illustrations in The Tree of Life depicts the young Darwin fleeing a nightmarish theatre of dissection (and, fortuitously, his career in medicine):
Poor Darwin! But what a good thing for biology that he was so squeamish. . .