The Tree of Life: A Book Depicting the Life of Charles Darwin: Naturalist, Geologist, and Thinker


In this brilliant presentation of a revolutionary thinker's life, the picture book becomes an art form

As far as I can judge, I am not apt to follow blindly the lead of other men . . .

Charles Darwin was, above all else, an independent thinker who continues even now to influence the way we look at the natural world. His endless curiosity and passion for detail resulted in a wealth of notebooks, diaries, correspondence, and published writings ...

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In this brilliant presentation of a revolutionary thinker's life, the picture book becomes an art form

As far as I can judge, I am not apt to follow blindly the lead of other men . . .

Charles Darwin was, above all else, an independent thinker who continues even now to influence the way we look at the natural world. His endless curiosity and passion for detail resulted in a wealth of notebooks, diaries, correspondence, and published writings that Peter Sís transforms into a visual treasure trove. A multilayered journey through Darwin’s world, The Tree of Life begins with his childhood and traces the arc of his life through university and career, following him around the globe on the voyage of the Beagle, and home to a quiet but momentous life devoted to science and family. Sís uses his own singular vision to create a gloriously detailed panorama of a genius’s trajectory through investigating and understanding the mysteries of nature. In pictures executed in fine pen and ink and lush watercolors – cameo portraits, illustrated pages of diary, cutaway views of the Beagle, as well as charts, maps, and a gatefold spread – Peter Sís has shaped a wondrous introduction to Charles Darwin.

The Tree of Life is a 2003 New York Times Book Review Best Illustrated Book of the Year and Notable Children's Book of the Year, and a 2004 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.

Presents the life of the famous nineteenth-century naturalist using text from Darwin's writings and detailed drawings by Sis.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Renowned children's author Peter Sís re-creates with equal brilliance the style and substance of his Caldecott Honor–winning Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei, this time showing audiences the theoretical accomplishments of the legendary naturalist Charles Darwin. From the scientist's birth in Shrewsbury, England, to his buriel in Westminster Abbey, Sís covers all the bases and delves even deeper, combining sophisticated illustrations of Darwin's life, journal entries, and letters with straightforward text that contrasts Darwin's private investigations with his public persona. Particularly impressive are the intricate and dramatic details that Sís puts into his artwork, such as a depiction of the HMS Beagle that -- on one spread -- includes aerial and side views of the ship and its interior, small scenes of the Beagle in several locations, mini portraits of Captain Robert Fitzroy and Darwin, and short diary entries about Darwin's experiences on the ship. Other breathtaking spreads illustrate portions of the naturalist's journal entries from his time in South America (dividing the spread into 32 smaller pages); a map entitled "The Voyage of the Beagle: December 27, 1831–October 2, 1836"; and, daringly, images that meld the theorist's body with those of the animals around him. But the book's climax coincides with the corresponding high point of Darwin's work -- The Origin of Species -- as a dynamic fold-out spread jubilantly encompasses various fauna, Darwin's theory of evolution, the past, the present, and even the earth itself. At the end, readers will sit agog at Sís' treatment, which is no small feat given the scope of what Darwin achieved in his lifetime. Each page is a mini masterpiece in itself, focusing on the minutiae just as Darwin did, and always awash in history with its watery hues and faint recollection of di Vinci's drawings. Pure Sís through and through, however, this tribute is a history lesson that without fail transcends the norm as it enchants and enlightens. Matt Warner
From the Publisher

"Sweeping in scope, lavish in detail, this is a book to launch many a reader's personal voyage of discovery." --Starred, Publishers Weekly

"Beautifully conceived and executed, the presentation is a humorous and informative tour de force that will absorb and challenge readers...a fabulous, visually exciting introduction to the man, his ideas and the science of the natural world." --Starred, School Library Journal

"Sís translates Darwin's written legacy into visual narrative in an extraordinary book that explores Darwin's life, work, and sources of inspiration...The detailed illustrations and narrative complexities demand of readers the same process Darwin set for himself: observe carefully, make connections, and learn." --Starred, The Horn Book

"Sís incorporates phrases, lines, and paragraphs of text into the artwork of this highly visual biography of Charles Darwin...A sophisticated interpretation that will have rapt admirers, including many adults." --Booklist

"This enchanting find is for readers of all ages." --VOYA

The New York Times
Sís' book The Tree of Life succeeds brilliantly in arresting and educating the eye. Using a very limited but appealing range of hues, tones and geometric shapes, Sís, who won a MacArthur Foundation ''genius award'' last month, invites calm and slow movement through his text. His challenge is to translate Darwin's notebooks -- the journeyman documents that substantiated his grand theory -- into pictures. — Daria Donnelly
The Washington Post
The text is based on Darwin's own writings, and the drawings are Sís's fantastically detailed visual interpretation of them. Fascinating material...—Elizabeth Ward
Publishers Weekly
In another stunning picture book biography, Sis (Starry Messenger) trains his attention on Charles Darwin. From the naturalist's early days ("Charles doesn't like... school") to his father's initial refusal to let him sail aboard the H.M.S. Beagle to the explosive reaction to his theory of natural selection, Sis traces the arc of the scientific giant's life. The sheer amount of information he compiles and presents-all with great fluidity and ingenuity-is nothing short of staggering. Not an inch of space goes unused (including the endpapers, which extend the major themes of Darwin's career through a patchwork of elaborate motifs), and the result is an opulent and vastly absorbing tapestry of maps, thumbnail portraits, diary entries, floor plans, family trees and more, including an elaborate gatefold that illuminates Darwin's major work, On the Origin of Species. Sis's trademark style, with its meticulous cross-hatching, pointillistic images and slightly enigmatic air, invites close inspection and repeat readings. His knack for defining not only the grand events of a subject's life, but also the humanizing particulars once again make a complex subject accessible to readers-Darwin's daily domestic schedule, for instance ("12:00 noon: Rain or shine, stroll around the Sandwalk with Polly, his dog") and his childhood nickname ("Gas"). Sweeping in scope, lavish in detail, this is a book to launch many a reader's personal voyage of discovery. Ages 8-up. (Oct.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature
Although Darwin did not originate the theory of evolution, his scholarly research and the subsequent publication of his book in 1859 secured his place in history as the first and foremost authority on the subject. This biography presents a comprehensive view of Darwin's life with historical entries, facts about his public life, and personal information taken from his diaries. Darwin regretted that he could not draw, but he made up for this perceived deficiency by writing very detailed descriptions of all that he observed. Sis has used these documents to illustrate a plethora of details within the picture book format. Not only has he drawn pictures for the specimens Darwin described, he has also profusely illustrated events from throughout Darwin's life, including his birth, childhood, education, family, and professional accomplishments. Darwin was attracted to the study of natural phenomena from an early age and was invited to travel on the H.M.S. Beagle to study the south of America as a naturalist when he was 22. This five-year voyage was the most significant event of his life and charted his future career choices. Both children and adults will find this many layered account of Darwin's life fascinating. 2003, Frances Foster Books/Farrar Straus Giroux, Ages 8 up.
— Phyllis Kennemer, Ph.D.
School Library Journal
Gr 4 Up-Poring over this visually thrilling exploration of Darwin's life and work is in itself an exercise in discovery. Chock-full of bits and snatches of the great thinker's writings, the book captures his curiosity, sense of adventure, and appreciation for the natural world. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Charles Darwin never learned to draw, so the record of his famous, five-year voyage on the Beagle consists solely of wonderfully detailed diaries, letters, and journals. He was not a "finished" naturalist when he joined the crew as a young man just out of college, but he was a topnotch observer. S's's superb visualization of Darwin's diary entries makes a stunningly beautiful volume-gorgeously illustrated and designed, though crowded with detail and sometimes tiny print. Readers will spend hours poring over the pages, which, like the author's Starry Messenger (1996), inventively places text, illustrations, charts, and maps throughout. Much information is imparted in illustrations and captions, and excerpts from Darwin's diaries add authenticity. Unfortunately, the text never clearly explains what exactly Darwin's ideas were and how he developed them. Young readers won't see the connection between Darwin's fieldwork and the theories derived from it. A fine introduction to Darwin, but a better explanation of the science, for older readers, can be found in Dorothy Hinshaw Patent's Charles Darwin: The Life of a Revolutionary Thinker (2001). (author's note) (Nonfiction. 8+)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374456283
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 10/1/2003
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 44
  • Sales rank: 318,906
  • Age range: 5 - 8 Years
  • Lexile: IG890L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 9.39 (w) x 12.37 (h) x 0.44 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Sís has written and illustrated many award-winning books for children, including Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei and Tibet Through the Red Box, both Caldecott Honor books. He lives in New York with his wife and two children.

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Reading Group Guide

The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin is a picture book biography of one of the greatest scientists, observers, and thinkers of all time.Peter Sís takes readers on an incredible voyage of discovery as they explore the life and times of Charles Darwin. This beautifully illustrated biography examines the life of Darwin from three distinct perspectives. Sís explores the public, the personal, and the secret (or inner)
life of this nineteenth-century naturalist. Scientists and explorers in elementary and middle grades will be able to examine Darwin from his youth as the son of a wealthy English physician, to his adventures aboard the H.M.S. Beagle as it traversed the globe on a five-year voyage, to his years of experimentation, reflection, and writing. Through this biography, students will make connections to the worlds of science, social studies, language arts, and art. The activities included in this guide can be integrated into many disciplines and many areas of exploration. Teachers can use The Tree of Life as a springboard into a discussion about the nature of science. The sometimes controversial nature of Darwin’s theory on how life on Earth has changed over time can be a difficult lesson to teach. The struggles that Darwin himself had with this complicated topic are examined by Peter Sís and can be the focus of rich lessons about how scientific discoveries change the way we look at the world and the way we look at ourselves.

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 30, 2003

    Fascinating illustrations

    Naturalist student Charles Darwin spent five-years exploring remote locales in the Pacific as part of the voyage of the Beagle. Darwin kept detailed notes that documented all he saw. However, though his writings about the trek are incredible in scope, no drawings accompanied Darwin¿s wealth of material. Peter Sis fills the void by providing a stunning pictorial of Darwin's diary, journal, and other writings that will leave the audience in awe while taking hours to look at one overwhelmingly detailed page at a time.<P> This reviewer and her spouse spent an hour a day over the past few weeks fascinated by this tribute. Though intended for the elementary school crowd readers of all ages will appreciate THE TREE OF LIFE: CHARLES DARWIN as a powerful introduction to one of the most influential individuals of the last two centuries. This tome makes the perfect family gathering as adults and children can share the fascination as Mr. Sis shows a picture is worth a thousand words (and $18.00). <P> Harriet Klausner

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted February 3, 2010

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