Cover image for The tree of life : a book depicting the life of Charles Darwin, naturalist, geologist & thinker
The tree of life : a book depicting the life of Charles Darwin, naturalist, geologist & thinker
1st ed.
Publication Information:
New York : Farrar Straus Giroux, 2003.
Physical Description:
[34] p. : col. ill. ; 31 cm.
Reading Level:
IG 950 L Lexile
Personal Subject:
Presents the life of the famous nineteenth-century naturalist using text from Darwin's writings and detailed drawings by Sis.


Material Type
Call Number
Item Available
Book J 921 DARWIN 1 1

On Order



In this brilliant presentation of a revolutionary thinker's life, the picture book becomes an art form

As far as I can judge, I am not apt to follow blindly the lead of other men . . .

Charles Darwin was, above all else, an independent thinker who continues even now to influence the way we look at the natural world. His endless curiosity and passion for detail resulted in a wealth of notebooks, diaries, correspondence, and published writings that Peter Sís transforms into a visual treasure trove. A multilayered journey through Darwin's world, The Tree of Life begins with his childhood and traces the arc of his life through university and career, following him around the globe on the voyage of the Beagle, and home to a quiet but momentous life devoted to science and family. Sís uses his own singular vision to create a gloriously detailed panorama of a genius's trajectory through investigating and understanding the mysteries of nature. In pictures executed in fine pen and ink and lush watercolors - cameo portraits, illustrated pages of diary, cutaway views of the Beagle, as well as charts, maps, and a gatefold spread - Peter Sís has shaped a wondrous introduction to Charles Darwin. This title has Common Core connections.

The Tree of Life is a 2003 New York Times Book Review Best Illustrated Book of the Year and Notable Children's Book of the Year, and a 2004 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.

Author Notes

Peter Sis was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in 1949 and attended the Academy of Applied Arts in Prague and the Royal College of Art in London. He began his career as a filmmaker and won the Golden Bear Award at the 1980 West Berlin Film Festival for an animated short. He has also won the Grand Prix Toronto and the Cine Golden Eagle Award, and in 1983 collaborated with Bob Dylan on You Got to Serve Somebody. His film work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

In 1982 Sis was sent to Los Angeles to produce a film for the 1984 Winter Olympics. But the film project was canceled when Czechoslovakia and the entire Eastern bloc decided to boycott the Olympics. Ordered by his government to return home, Sis decided to stay in the United States and was granted asylum. Sis then met Maurice Sendak who introduced him to children's books, and he moved to New York City in 1984 to begin a career in children's literature.

Sís earned quick acclaim with the publication of the 1986 Newbery Medal Winner, The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleishman, for which he did the illustrations. Sis is a five-time winner of The New York Times Book Review Best Illustrated Book of the Year.. Komodo! and A Small Tall Tale from the Far Far North were each named a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor Book, and he has won a Society of Illustrators Gold Medal for Komodo! and a Silver Medal for The Three Golden Keys. Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei was a 1997 Caldecott Honor Book, as was Tibet Through the Red Box. Sis has also received a MacArthur Fellowship

Sis' editorial illustrations have appeared in Time, Newsweek, Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly, and many other magazines in the United States and abroad. He has published nearly 1,000 drawings in The New York Times Book Review. He has designed many book jackets and posters, including, in 1984, the famous poster for Milos Forman's Academy Award-winning motion picture Amadeus. He has also completed a mural for the Washington/Baltimore Airport, a poster for the New York City subway system, and a stage set for the Joffrey Ballet. His work has been exhibited in Prague, London, Zurich, Hamburg, Los Angeles, and New York in both group and one-man shows.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 5

Publisher's Weekly Review

In another stunning picture book biography, Sis (Starry Messenger) trains his attention on Charles Darwin. From the naturalist's early days ("Charles doesn't like... school") to his father's initial refusal to let him sail aboard the H.M.S. Beagle to the explosive reaction to his theory of natural selection, Sis traces the arc of the scientific giant's life. The sheer amount of information he compiles and presents-all with great fluidity and ingenuity-is nothing short of staggering. Not an inch of space goes unused (including the endpapers, which extend the major themes of Darwin's career through a patchwork of elaborate motifs), and the result is an opulent and vastly absorbing tapestry of maps, thumbnail portraits, diary entries, floor plans, family trees and more, including an elaborate gatefold that illuminates Darwin's major work, On the Origin of Species. Sis's trademark style, with its meticulous cross-hatching, pointillistic images and slightly enigmatic air, invites close inspection and repeat readings. His knack for defining not only the grand events of a subject's life, but also the humanizing particulars once again make a complex subject accessible to readers-Darwin's daily domestic schedule, for instance ("12:00 noon: Rain or shine, stroll around the Sandwalk with Polly, his dog") and his childhood nickname ("Gas"). Sweeping in scope, lavish in detail, this is a book to launch many a reader's personal voyage of discovery. Ages 8-up. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Horn Book Review

(Intermediate, Middle School) Sis translates Darwin's written legacy into visual narrative in an extraordinary book that explores Darwin's life, work, and sources of inspiration. Four pages depicting Darwin's childhood revolve around a sense of place, with each page containing a large circular illustration that moves readers from home to boarding school to medical school to Cambridge University. While the large circles suggest confinement, this sense is lessened by four smaller circles, one on each of the four quadrants of the page, that indicate influences on the young Charles, such as parents and grandfathers surrounding Darwin at home and four mentors anchoring him at Cambridge. The text in this early section consists of two complementary voices: heavy, boldface statements representing Robert Darwin's plans for his son followed by lighter, italicized thoughts that Charles has for his own life. When Charles decides to join the voyage of the Beagle, this narrative ceases, and illustrations expand to fill a series of double-page spreads. Here readers see examples of Darwin's exhaustive list-making, with small calligraphic lists of such things as expenses and a daily schedule. Faux diary entries show the world Darwin explored through illustrations of landforms, inhabitants, and animals. Again, Darwin's passion for detail is evoked; one of the small diary pages contains sixty-eight tiny dots, each purportedly representing one of ""68 species of a particularly minute beetle."" When Darwin returns from this life-defining trip, the text resumes as a tripartite discourse touching on Darwin's public, private, and secret lives as he begins lecturing; gets married; and, covertly, contemplates his species theory. The climax of the book -- and of Darwin's work, Sis implies -- is On the Origin of Species, which Sis presents as an extravagant gatefold spread, darkly covered on the outside with Darwin's detractors and supporters, but exploding with light on the inside, as a brief description of the theory grows visually from a metaphoric forest. The detailed illustrations and narrative complexities demand of readers the same process Darwin set for himself: observe carefully, make connections, and learn. (c) Copyright 2010. The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. All rights reserved.

Booklist Review

Gr. 4-7. Sis incorporates phrases, lines, and paragraphs of text into the artwork of this highly visual biography of Charles Darwin. Cameos, small portraits, and miniature framed drawings add further layers of texture and information. The narrative follows Darwin through his youth as he struggled to find his life's work, and through his adult years of scientific study, observation, and thinking that led to the publication of The Origin of Species and other writings. At the heart of the book is Darwin's work as a naturalist aboard the Beagle, when he collected the specimens and made the observations that formed the basis of his theories. Giving young readers a sense of Darwin's curiosity, adventures, and discoveries are a series of small journal pages featuring exquisite illustrations and tiny seemingly hand-lettered type that nearly discourages reading. A number of mysterious and evocative pictures fill the endpapers, with pictures suggesting biblical and other creation stories in the front and images representing the scientific study of the natural world in the back. A sophisticated interpretation that will have rapt admirers, including many adults. --Carolyn Phelan Copyright 2003 Booklist

School Library Journal Review

Gr 4 Up-Poring over this visually thrilling exploration of Darwin's life and work is in itself an exercise in discovery. Chock-full of bits and snatches of the great thinker's writings, the book captures his curiosity, sense of adventure, and appreciation for the natural world. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Kirkus Review

Charles Darwin never learned to draw, so the record of his famous, five-year voyage on the Beagle consists solely of wonderfully detailed diaries, letters, and journals. He was not a "finished" naturalist when he joined the crew as a young man just out of college, but he was a topnotch observer. Sís's superb visualization of Darwin's diary entries makes a stunningly beautiful volume--gorgeously illustrated and designed, though crowded with detail and sometimes tiny print. Readers will spend hours poring over the pages, which, like the author's Starry Messenger (1996), inventively places text, illustrations, charts, and maps throughout. Much information is imparted in illustrations and captions, and excerpts from Darwin's diaries add authenticity. Unfortunately, the text never clearly explains what exactly Darwin's ideas were and how he developed them. Young readers won't see the connection between Darwin's fieldwork and the theories derived from it. A fine introduction to Darwin, but a better explanation of the science, for older readers, can be found in Dorothy Hinshaw Patent's Charles Darwin: The Life of a Revolutionary Thinker (2001). (author's note) (Nonfiction. 8+) Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.