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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

Want to learn more? Go to

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!
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on September 24, 2016
This is based mainly on the Darwin family's correspondence so it's easy to believe it's accurate. I have read several books about Darwin, along with trying to slog through his actual book Origin of Species which is really tough going. The book adds detail to other facts about Darwin found in other books. It especially discusses the complication caused by Emma's belief in heaven and Darwin's struggle with that. Interesting fact: They had ten children, seven of whom survived, and Emma had her last child when she was 48 years old. However, they had an astonishing number of household employees, so Emma was not exactly doing laundry and cooking for the family. Great read!
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on July 19, 2016
I used this book to teach evolution to my 8th grade science students. You'd be surprised at how capable 8th graders can be of having respectful discussion on this topic! It allows students with or without religious convictions to address their concerns by talking about how Charles Darwin did so. They were also able to think about how to relate to people on both sides of the debate by exploring Charles's respect for his wife Emma (and her support of him despite her disagreements). Our socratic seminar on the themes in this book allowed us to start our unit on evolution with an open mind and with an understanding of (and respect for) different viewpoints.

The author also has a theater version of the book on her website, which was perfect for differentiation for english language learners or reading disabilities.
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on April 7, 2009
What a refreshing book! After all that's been written about Charles Darwin it's hard to believe that any new slant on this genius's life could be mined. But author, Deborah Heiligman, has found her way by giving us a bird's eye view into the love story between Charles and his devout wife Emma. Though science and religion are important keys to Charles and Emma's lives, Heiligman wisely uses a conversational tone, full of wit and humor, that keeps the pacing at the right level for middle grade and high school readers. What makes this a stand out read is the author's deft hand with details which she uses to paint a vivid picture of 19th century England. I loved that she starts out with a list young Darwin made of the pro's and con's of marriage! Not exactly Mr. Spontanious, but his loyalty to Emma and his children never wavered.
What also comes through is the author's sympathy for two people of such opposing views, who somehow manage to come together and actually thrive. It really is a testament to the strength of their love when you read about their many struggles and heartbreaks within their own family. It's biography at it's best.
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on September 3, 2009
Picked for a book club read, not realizing it was geared toward a younger audience. Several of us really enjoyed it, though we all found the writing style very simple (just right to include the younger audience.) You get to know Darwin as "Charles", a husband and father, a human being in the context of a family; and are charmed and touched by his relationship with them. And the story of how his discoveries effected his beliefs and thus his relationships with those he loved most, keeps you enthralled, especially for people who have experienced the effects of differences in belief in their personal relationships with those they love, who have the context of the full depth of their emotions to draw from when they are only hinted at in the book. It follows the story of his relationship with Emma and family life from it's start to the ends of their lives, and his scientific work in the context of his daily life with his family. Simple and understated, drawing the picture from the historical sources, some in our book club longed for more, and it certainly could have been made more exciting as historical fiction, where you could have gotten inside their heads a bit more, but I find a beauty in the story told as simply as it was. When differences in belief so often spark contention that tears people apart, I found this a beautiful story of triumph of love for our fellow beings, in a striking place: one of the first couples to have felt the impact of the theory of evolution.

I came away with greater respect for Darwin most deeply because of this one thing: his care and respect for the feelings of those whose religious devotion was disturbed by his theories. When after his death, Emma edited out certain passages of his personal writings, which were not intended by him to go public, because she said she thought people would take them the wrong way, at first you may think she is trying to clean up what she doesn't agree with. But I get the feeling from what you learn about the two, that more likely she knew that Charles didn't like offending and hurting people, and was more likely to withhold a thought of his that might be taken as being disrespectful or in mean spirit to others who held contradictory cherished beliefs. Not that he didn't feel justified in his beliefs, but that he would take the utmost care that others would not perceive the slightest mean spirit or disrespect in his intent.

One thing that struck me was how being part of a distinctly upper class, the life Darwin led that enabled him to devote his time to his studies, was surely starkly different than the lives and constraints of those in the working and poorer classes. While this was not a theme brought out at all in the book (appropriately, as this was not the scope of the book), I couldn't help become aware of it while reading the account of what his daily life and home was like.

Seeing Darwin's studies in the context of his home life, and ordinary daily musings and observations of the things around him, can also be a great model for the young scientists among us.
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on September 10, 2015
This was a fascinating book, bringing to light Darwin's personal story in a most interesting way. It was written for young adults, but both my husband and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It was extremely well written and revealed what limited resources physicians had in those days as well as the story of two lovely people who definitely deserved each other. Also, of course, the at that time Darwin's unorthodox view of man's development and how he and his very religious wife came to terms with his revolutionary views.
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on April 11, 2017
Enjoyed learning more about Emma - very interesting book
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on August 12, 2013
Who would have thought a story about the Darwins could be so refreshing? Add the human elements of Charles' passion for observing and reporting nature, a much loved religious wife fearful of the fate of her husbands soul, societies conservative mores, and the sensible human hesitation Charles experienced to protect his families from what he believed was a revelation that precluded God and could shun him and shame those he loved.
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on March 29, 2016
I loved this book. I learned a lot about Charles Darwin's personal life. I am not a Darwinist, but I can appreciate the man and his work, his contributions to science, and his life. It was an enjoyable, we'll written book.
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on November 13, 2013
Okay for private school or home reading. Too much religion for public school. The story is well told. The author does a good job. I learned things I didn’t know, even though I’ve got a solid education in biology. But I’m a bio teacher and I wanted a readable book for my students. There’s just too much religion for me to get it past a public school.
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