The Tree of Life by Peter Sis

Bibliographic Information: Sis, P. (2003). The Tree of Life: A Book Depicting the Life of Charles Darwin, Naturalist, Geologist & Thinker. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  ISBN:0374456283.  44 pages.

Plot Summary: Charles Robert Darwin was born February 12, 1809, in Shrewbury, England.  That day no one knew that young Charles would one day change the world.  From his early days trying to live up to being the boy his father wants him to be, Darwin struggled with formal “indoor” learning and his strict boarding school.  “He wants to be outdoors, riding, shooting, fishing, taking long walks through the countryside collecting things.”  Eventually, Charles discovers his passion for the natural sciences: geology, zoology and botany, which he much prefers to the medical science path his father wants him to follow.  Through his naturalist studies Darwin finds his way to a boat, the H.M.S. Beagle.  The Beagle takes Darwin on a journey around the world where he discovers clues that will ultimately lead him to write his controversial and ground-breaking book, On The Origin of Species.  Through intricately rendered illustrations, diary entries and explanatory text, Charles Darwin’s story comes to life.

Critical Evaluation: The Tree of Life is not a child’s picture book.  It is a beautifully illustrated, deeply rich introduction to the life and work of Charles Darwin.  Sis has managed to take picture books to a whole new level, with complex concepts and explanatory illustrations, maps and diagrams.  Visual learners will be in heaven as each two-page spread contains multiple images that explicate parts of Darwin’s story.  The amount of text is significant, but not overwhelming, and the writing is appropriate for teens through adults.  Sis has clearly done his homework in presenting biographical as well as scientific details that many people will be fascinated and interested to learn.  His detailed illustrations of Darwin’s specimens would have made Darwin himself proud.  This New York Times Best Illustrated Book is a unique and welcome addition to the cannon of biographies.  Writing a report on a famous scientist was never before this fun. 

Reader’s Annotation: Peter Sis brings Charles Darwin to life in this picture book biography, with beautifully and intricately rendered illustrations, maps and diagrams, in addition to diary entries, and explanatory text.

Information about the Author: In his author’s note Sis wrote “Charles Darwin regretted that he hadn’t learned to draw.  Instead, he kept detailed descriptions of everything he saw.  It is these dense and vivid written passages in his diaries, letters, and journals that have inspired me to use my own drawings, based on contemporary sources, to tell this story of his life.”  It must be strange for Sis, who expresses himself so impressively through drawings, to imagine Charles Darwin being unable to draw images of those things that so fascinated and impressed him.  Sis has illustrated children’s books in addition to other tween, teen, and adult-level picture books.  He has also, “contributed more than a thousand drawings to The New York Times Book Review and his illustrations have appeared in Time magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Newsweek, Esquire and many other magazines in the United States and abroad.”  (

Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography, Science

Format: Alternative Format: Graphic Book

Topics Covered: Biology, Evolution, Botany, Zoology, Naturalists, Independent Thinkers

Curriculum Ties: Science, Biology, Botany, Zoology, Naturalists, Evolution, 19th Century history

Booktalking Ideas: Start with one of Darwin’s quotes and discuss the negative responses he received for his work.

Reading Level/Interest Age: Ages 12-18

Challenge Issues: Some people’s religious beliefs lead them to think that Darwin’s evolutionary theories are not correct.  A potential challenge regarding this issue could be addressed by the several positive reviews of the book as well as awards and honors it has received.

Why is this book included?  Initially found while reading Cart, who wrote about Sis, “Both his picture book biography of Charles Darwin, The Tree of Life…and his autobiographical book The Wall…were selected as Best Books for Young Adults,” (Cart, 2010, p. 113). The format of this book is unique, so it has the potential to appeal to people to whom a linear, text-only biography would not.  Additionally, it provides excellent information for all readers.


Cart, M. (2010). Young adult literature: From romance to realism.  Chicago, IL: ALA.