Friday, February 27, 2009


Charles Darwin didn’t always look like this:

Here’s the cover of my new book, What Darwin Saw: The Voyage that Changed the World. During his extraordinary five year voyage of discovery aboard the Beagle, he was a popular, athletic guy in his 20’s who looked a whole lot more like this:

To put it another way, Darwin was someone that readers might even like to hang out with.

Darwin’s story begins as an adventure jam-packed with bizarre animals and gigantic fossils, exploding volcanoes and violent earthquakes, and people who live differently from anything he’s ever imagined. But there’s so much more to his story than that. The book also explores one of the world’s greatest mysteries: What is the true history of life on earth, and why are living things constantly changing? I’ve tried to concoct a page-turner that invites readers to identify in the most immediate way with the guy who solves this mystery…and then offers them a leg up to figure out (both intuitively and scientifically) exactly how he cracks the code.

Here’s my modus operendi:

The Words I originally set my research in motion by excerpting the juiciest and most relevant parts of Darwin’s enormous Beagle Diary, which was written during the journey he began at age 22. His daily entries are chock full of humor, entertaining stories, youthful exuberance, and even lyrical writing, so I was pretty sure folks would get a kick out of reading what he said in his own words. You can just hear his British accent. Soon I was adding quotes from stacks of his other books and letters too. I also play the role of narrator in the book so that I can make segues and explanations.

In his diary, Darwin tells jokes on himself about such things as the trouble he has climbing into his hammock or about being squirted by a cuttle-fish. (In my actual book, Darwin’s quotes fill those empty speech balloons above.) I think readers can identify better with a protagonist who’s not picture perfect or perfectly brilliant 100% of the time.

An Adventure of My Own Yup, I did get to go to South America and the Galapagos, where I took several thousand photographs to use as part of my visual research. Let’s be honest here; walking in Darwin’s footsteps had to be the coolest thing about writing this book. But beside the fun, I’m absolutely fanatic about making sure every bit of my work is as accurate as humanly possible, and taking pictures is just one of my many research tools. Here are some very tiny examples of photos that show up in my artwork:

Can you find the Blue Morpho butterfly in the jungle scene below? Look hard.

The Setup As you can see from the pictures above, I laid out this book as my own colorful version of a graphic novel. There was simply so much to tell that I needed to include lots of detailed pictures on each spread. And I made sure that every page was designed with an ulterior motive in mind; besides relating Darwin’s adventures and close calls, I always piled in plenty of clues to foreshadow Darwin’s later studies about evolution.

Extras Among many other things, I added to my book all kinds of fun and interesting science stuff: Pictures showing what the fossil animals looked like and how big they were when they were alive; stories about the ways that European people changed the face of other continents—and how European plants and animals did likewise; very cool examples of 20 experiments and research projects Darwin thought up to help explore his theory; the reasons he kept his work secret for 20 long years, and the effect that his discoveries had on the public in 1859 and on the rest of the world until this very day.

The Tree of Life

Making this book was a labor of love and is dedicated to my grandfather, the late Rabbi Jerome Mark. During the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee, he worked with defense lawyer Clarence Darrow as an expert consultant on the Old Testament of the Bible. He helped Darrow think of questions that would trap prosecution lawyer William Jennings Bryan into admitting that the Bible could not always be interpreted literally and that every living thing on earth could not have been created in 6 days just a few thousand years ago. Darrow’s interrogation of Bryan was front page news all over America and helped gain widespread support for Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. If I can support that cause in even the smallest way by encouraging young people to explore Darwin’s work or by opening their eyes to the wonderful achievements that future scientists can make possible, I will be delighted.


Unknown said...

This book looks like such fun, the way you approached both the writing and the art is so engaging. And your family connection to the Scopes trial, that’s amazing!

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Thanks, Loreen. I've been curious about Darwin ever since I can remember because of my grandfather. I have 3 newspaper articles from the period that say he actually testified at the Scopes trial, but my mom says that he served as Darrow's advisor and never sat on the stand.

Unknown said...

The evidence that Darwin collected is so overwhelming that he couldn't help but come to his conclusions that rocked the world in the nineteenth century and still rock those who will not see and wish to believe that "evolution is a very weak theory." congratulations to you, Rosalyn, for creating such a marvelous work.

Deborah Heiligman said...

I love how you talk about your research, and it just whets my appetite even more to read your book. As you know I read The Voyage of the Beagle for Charles and Emma, but it was such a small part of the book, that I can't wait to read and see your take on it. And yes, going to the Galapagos was one of those life-changing experiences, wasn't it? And going to Down House was for me, too. I want to go back to both places. I.N.K. Field trip?

Wendie O said...

So that's where you've been, Roz! What an adventure, culminating in a wonderful book.
(Field trip! I love field trips.)

See you one of these days at a meeting.
-wendie Old

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Hi Wendy-
I too love field trips....and I wish I could make all my field trips into books. Of course if I did that, I'd never be home and would never find the time to write a word. But I do think that just about every book I ever wrote was really a wish to go along as a passenger in someone else's great adventure.

Charlotte said...

Hi Rosalyn,

I am just gathering links prior to posting my review of What Darwin Saw. I, um, rather liked it...

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Thank you, Charlotte. I read your review, and it must be among the best I ever got. I loved the part about your eight year made my day.