What Darwin Saw: the Journey that Changed the World

In the past few weeks, I have had the very great pleasure of reading What Darwin Saw: The Journey That Changed the World, by Rosalyn Schanzer (Smithsonian: 2009, ages 8-adult). First I read it out loud to my boys, and then again to myself. I had the great pleasure of watching my eight-year old poring over it repeatedly, and finally, I've read it a third time today. I do not remember ever being so very impressed by a non-fiction picture book in my life (I am pretty sure I mean this).

What Darwin Saw tells how young Darwin travelled around the world in the 1830s, and the strange, wonderful, and sometimes scary things he saw. It takes him home to England, where he spent the rest of his life creating a new theory of how life on earth has changed over the millenia. The book is part narration by the author, part snippets from Darwin's journals and letters, and part notes of explanation.

Maybe I loved this book so much because of the beautiful illustrations. This is a non-fiction picture book of the best kind, where what is shown is both compliment to and continuation of the words. From full-paged panoramic landscapes to close up scientific details, Schanzer has given us a huge variety of enchanting pictures to pore over and delight in (click here to see one of the most beautiful).

Maybe it was the story-line. The adventurous journey around the world, the strange things seen, the marvels that Darwin witnessed, told in large part through his own words: "We climbed up to rough mass of greenstone which crowns the summit of Bell Mountain. this rock was shattered into huge angular fragments, some appearing as if broken the day before, whilst on others, lichens had long grown. I so fully believed that this was owing to frequent earthquakes that I felt inclined to hurry from each loose pile" (page 21).

Maybe it was because Darwin makes a surprisingly great hero. Adventurous and curious, his delight in what he sees is profound. Thoughtful and determined, he is a great role model for the young (and for the rest of us too) when he comes back to England, carefully piecing together the clues on which he will build his scientific edifice (I can imagine holding him up as an example to my children when they rush through their own homework. I can imagine this having no effect....)

And I know that I loved the clear prose with which Schanzer narrates and explains Darwin's voyage and his theories about evolution. Simple enough so that an eight year old can follow, complex enough so that the adult reader does not feel patronized.

But I think that the biggest reason why I was so enraptured is that this book is a celebration of all the wonderful forms of life with which we share our planet. In Darwin's words, quoted by Schanzer, "From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

Schanzer, incidentally, deals with the 19th-century conflict between those who accepted evolution with those who could not reconcile the words of the Bible and Darwin's theory. She does not touch on the debates that are still on-going.

Here's a link to Schanzer talking about the evolution of her book, at I.N.K. (Interesting Non-fiction for Kids, which is a great blog).

Here's another review at Muddy Puddle Musings. I was surprised I didn't find, in the five minutes or so I had on hand to spend link-looking any other reviews, any more that were more substantial than mentions....if you reviewed this, let me know and I'll add the link!

This is my contribution to today's Non-Fiction Monday; the roundup is being hosted today by L.L. Owens.


  1. "I do not remember ever being so very impressed by a non-fiction picture book in my life." That says it all for me ... I'm going to have to find this book.


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