Wednesday, February 11, 2009

One Beetle Too Many: The Extraordinary Adventures of Charles Darwin by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Matthew Trueman

One Beetle Too Many: The Extraordinary Adventures of Charles Darwin by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Matthew Trueman

Reviewed by Laura Koenig (Bib-Laura-graphy)

Kathryn Lasky and Matthew Trueman's
One Beetle Too Many: The Extraordinary Adventures of Charles Darwin takes the reader along on Darwin's journey. The book begins in his youth, and as the text details his academic struggles in childhood and his contentious relationship with his father, children can see the young Darwin's curiosity and love of nature shining through on every page. Darwin's future as a naturalist is visible from the first illustration, where a young Charles trips across a room kicking up dirt and plants and drawings of beetles, surrounded by specimens and snails whose alien-like eyes peek out at him. And when kids read the accompanying text and learn the reason that his cheek is so bulged out - he's got a beetle inside his mouth for safekeeping - curious kids will be hooked.

The bulk of the book takes place during Darwin's voyage on the Beagle and his travels in South America. The narrative voice of the story lets young readers make discoveries and ask questions along with Darwin, with an explanation of each separate step that eventually leads to his theory of evolution. This technique keeps a tough concept clear and engaging for young audiences. The tension between Darwin's new theory and the established creationist theory is also cleverly framed to make it accessible for children. Lasky uses Fitzroy, the Captain of the Beagle, as a foil for Darwin. Their arguments serve both to move Darwin's discoveries forward, and also to give a concrete example of how his work would be received by the general population.

The text is full of small details that will grab the attention of young readers. In my personal favorite episode, Darwin discovers that the delicious meal he has been eating is in fact a rare example of a nearly extinct ostrich. He runs back to the kitchen to save the bones from the cook, and is able to put together a specimen that is instrumental to his work. And this is not the last time that Darwin accidentally eats an important specimen!

While Lasky's text is excellent, it is Matthew Trueman's art that makes this book a standout. The illustrations are densely layered and full of texture, with a level of detail that is extraordinary. The textures and layers use a large number of mediums, and as a read, I found myself wondering how exactly he had created his complicated scenes. In case anyone else is curious about the process, according to the artist, "the illustrations in this book started out as drawings created with acrylic inks, watercolor, and graphite pencil. I moved up the food chain to add gouache and colored pencil. After sealing the pictures with acrylic medium, I did my thicker acrylic painting, then fooled around a little more with graphite and colored pencil. Finally, I added the collage elements, including paper, string, and weeds and wildflowers from my yard and nearby ditches and fields." Trueman uses his mixed mediums to great effect, and the addition of pressed flowers and plants to his already delightful paintings is especially effective. The very real leaves and branches draw attention to the world of nature that was a focus of Darwin's work, especially in scenes that show his notebooks and workspaces. They also serve to make the cartoonish people and animals pop off the page. Trueman's people are constantly in motion, especially Darwin himself, and their action draws the eye immediately. Darwin ages over the course of the book, and I was delighted by the changes to his hair on almost every page.

This book is a treat for curious young scientists, or for anyone who wonders about the world around them.

More info:
  • Reading level: Ages 9-12
  • Hardcover: 48 pages
  • Publisher: Candlewick (January 13, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 076361436X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0763614362
  • Source: F&G from publisher


  1. Wow! There sure does seem to be a lot about Charles Darwin coming out in children's books lately. I was just going through a couple publishers checklist and between the two I must have seen at least 4 new titles pertaining to him!

  2. Very true! Tomorrow is the 200th anniversary of his birth, so Mr. Darwin has been a trendy topic this year.