Top positive review
Outstanding Narrative Nonfiction
Reviewed in the United States on December 4, 2014
Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman is exceptional.
As a fan of science writing, biography, historical settings, and young adult literature, I felt like Charles and Emma was written just for me. The religious issues along with the romantic aspects brought drama to what might have otherwise been a traditional biography. The religious and romantic elements might also move some fiction readers toward nonfiction. Many adult biographies can be academic and dry, so I enjoyed the simple language, conversational style, and topical emphasis of this book written for young adults. I don't normally think of biographies as "page turners," but the story was a really "quick read."
Heiligman wove interesting primary source materials and stories into the book. I particularly enjoyed the "to marry" and "no to marry" list. I could relate to this very analytical approach. I could also connect to his obsession with "knowing everything" about a particular topic such as his species studies.
Combining the stories of Charles and Emma made the book unique. As I read the story I wondered about the impact of spouses on other scientists. I'd like to see other books taking this approach to biography.
So much of YA literature focuses on realistic fiction (teen angst and melodrama) and fantasy (vampires, werewolves, dystopia) that it's great to see a book written for nerdy teens like I was! In publisher's quest for "high profit" books, they often forget that there's a market for engaging biographies, readable nonfiction, and quality storytelling outside traditional fiction categories. This book will never get the readership of the Twilight series, but there are teens in the world that aspire to be naturalists, scientists, and scholars that are thirsty for books like this.
One sign of an exceptional book is the degree to which I think about the book later. Darwin seems to be everywhere I look. Darwin's 200th birthday was Feb 12 2010.
I've always respected Charles Darwin for the many years he spent researching and reflecting on his theories before publishing. He truly wanted to "get it right." His approach to science and the development of arguments is a great example of critical thinking.
There are some great websites devoted to his work. You can also visit Darwin's countryside on Google Earth. For a great overview with images go to http://www.darwinday.org/learn/
Want to learn more? Go to http://www.darwinday.org/
Beyond the book...
I think it's important to introduce biography and Charles Darwin to children. For younger readers, I'd suggest the beautifully illustrated picture book "One Beetle Too Many: The Extraordinary Adventures of Charles Darwin" by Kathryn Lasky as a great introduction to Charles Darwin.
For teens who enjoy this book, I'd recommend moving into quality adult nonfiction such as Erick Larson's The Devil in the White City, Isaac's Storm, or Thunderstruck.
I enjoy reading about naturalists from the 1500s through the 1900s. For an engaging biography that takes place in the late 1600s, read "A Pirate of Exquisite Mind: Explorer, Naturalist, and Buccaneer: The Life of William Dampier" by Diana Preston.
The biographies of Linda Lear would be a great way to introduce young adults scholars to adult literature. Read Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature or Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature.
Okay, so now you know I'm a nerd. We need more nerds in the world!