The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin
by Peter Ss
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux: New York) $18/hardcover
It's hard to pin down exactly what makes Peter Ss' The Tree of Life so magical. Is it the subject itself, the life of Charles Darwin? Is it that Darwin never trusted his own draftsmanship and so Ss has brought to life something that never existed? Is it the quality of the pen-and-ink drawings themselves at once both folklorish and sophisticated?
Whatever the case, The Tree of Life is remarkable. Following the life of Darwin from his infancy to his death and omitting neither his personal life (his marriage, the death of several beloved children, his aspirations to be seen as a great scientist) nor the glamour of his year circumnavigating the globe, Ss uses a combination of unbeatable visual organization and spare language to be evocative, rather than encyclopedic.
Whether contemplating the horrors of slavery that the naturalist bemoaned around the globe or understanding the magnitude of circumnavigation in the 19th century, The Tree of Life brings Darwin himself to life with snippets from his diary and lovely illustrations. In so doing, the magnitude of his creation of the theory of natural selection becomes both less theoretical and more comprehensible. Whatever the age of the reader -- 7 or 70 -- The Tree of Life will enthrall, proving that the magic of the best children's books works upon young and old alike.
-- Andrea Lucard
Land of the Lost Mammoths
by Mike Davis
(Perceval Press: Santa Monica) $15.95/hardcover
As a young reader, I used to love mystery and adventure novels, but after graduating from the Nancy Drew series, I had to make a giant leap in age-appropriateness and start on Agatha Christies to get my adventure fix. Oh, how I wish that Land of the Lost Mammoths had been around when I was about 12. Adventure, teen-age heroism, lots of facts about Greenland, mammoths, Inuit culture and aerodynamics all mushed together in a delightful anthropological and paleobiological romp.
Four teen-age scientists are selected to participate in a United Nations-sponsored summer research program under a mysterious scientist. When they arrive in Greenland, they find that, contrary to their expectations, they will be counting caribou, that the U.N. program is a cover for investigating the possibility of long-lost mammoths and Viking civilizations.
Despite some choppy prose, the book is intellectually thrilling, delving deep into Greenlandic lore, providing tips on world-class sea kayaking, and containing a number of footnotes with references to scholarly works that seem quite irresistible even if you were never before interested in the lost Viking colonies or the habits of woolly mammoths. The kids battle screaming ice, strange shamans, overwhelming blizzards and a collapsing ice cave, meanwhile learning what kinds of ethical balances you must reach as a scientist -- all in 178 pages. Thus, what Land of the Lost Mammoths occasionally lacks in characterization is more than made up for in intrigue and suspense.
(Ages 12-grownup. Available from the publisher in a handsome cloth-bound book with beautiful heavy paper: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
-- Andrea Lucard