Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday: Mr. Darwin, Mr. Darwin

It’s Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday! 


Island: A Story of the Galapagos by Jason Chin was one of my favourite nonfiction titles of 2012.

I bought a copy for my son for Christmas and he has been examining the detailed drawings and asking me questions about Darwin, his travels, his theories and all of the fascinating animals of the Galapagos.

This prompted me to look for other picture books on the same topic to share with my children and we have been spending our nightly read aloud time reading more about Mr. Darwin, his voyage on the HMS Beagle and his theories of evolution.

Both of the books described below would be best shared as interactive read alouds with an early intermediate class or for independent reading for children in Grade 4 and above. Some vocabulary and concepts would need support.

We started with A Natural History Museum selection – What Mr. Darwin Saw by Mick Manning and Brita Granstrom (published 2009). This book is written like a diary and includes amusing thought bubbles and detailed drawings of the animals and the places where Darwin travelled. End pages are a map of Darwin’s route on board the HMS Beagle. The final pages of the book explain Darwin’s theory of evolution with visuals of chalkboard drawings and notes. It offers the beginning of an understanding of Darwin’s complex ideas.   My children had some background knowledge on this topic already and so they were able to ask some informed questions to build on their understanding.

what mr darwin saw

Next we read The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin by Peter Sis (published 2003). I don’t know if read is the best way to describe our experience with this book. Instead we studied, examined and flipped back and forth through the pages learning about Darwin’s life. My children loved the maps, found the illustration with Darwin’s own family tree fascinating (“He had so many children!” “Lots of them died young.” “His wife must of been so tired and sad.”) and liked the lists that outlined his daily routines at different times in his life. (“How did his wife get anything done if she was always reading to him?” my daughter wanted to know after finding out that Emma read to Charles multiple times a day.) We found some of the drawings and text too small – stunning but hard to interact with. Maybe this book needs a magnifying glass!? Many illustrations were perfect though and made the topic so much richer. This book is certainly a biography – we learn much about Darwin’s upbringing and about his later life that Sis divides into the public, private and secret realms. I’m leaving this book out so that we can continue to pore over it.

Tree of Life

Looking to learn more about Charles Darwin? These three titles would be a great place to start!

Interested more in the concept of evolution? This book does a wonderful job of explaining it in a story that allows children to understand the concept.

Charlie and Kiwi. . . an evolutionary adventure – created by Peter H. Reynolds and the NewYork Hall of Science.

Shared in my classroom here.

Charlie and Kiwi

Thanks to Alyson from KidLit Frenzy for the inspiration to participate weekly in this challenge.


My original goal was 60 nonfiction picture books for 2013. Progress: 7/60 complete 🙂



Our reading group has continued to practice strategies to handle unknown vocabulary in text. See the strategy list that we came up with earlier this month here. We spent part of a few reading classes with this great text: Wooly Mammoth by Mick Manning and Brita Granstrom. (A Natural History Museum Selection)

This book reads as an information story book: rhyming text accompanies the large pictures on each two page spread while black and white drawings and information reads in a column down one side of each page. You can read this book as just a storybook, concentrate primarily on the information or focus on both. Students enjoyed the mammoth time line at the end of the book and reviewing what they had learned by quizzing each other on the glossary words.

We then read Kali’s Song by Jeanette Winter.

We started by comparing the covers of Kali’s Song with a Wooly Mammoth. All year we have been talking about the different text features of fiction and non-fiction books. It would be interesting to see what we noticed when looking at Wooly Mammoth because it has both fiction and non-fiction elements (what we like to call an information story book). Students observed that even though both covers had illustrations rather than photographs, the mammoth on the cover of Wooly Mammoth looked more realistic. We talked about fur colour and the shape of the tusks. We also discussed how one mammoth was standing in the snow and another on grass/ground next to a little boy and a dog. “How could they stand so close?” someone wondered.

Before we began reading Kali’s Song, I asked the students, “Even though this is clearly a fiction text, do you think we will be able to link some of our learning from Wooly Mammoth to what we read?” We were ready to look for any text to text connections. Would our sense of the story be enhanced by our newly acquired background knowledge? (schema)

Immediately students were excited to see Kali’s mother painting animals on the cave’s wall. “We learned about how they did that in the other book! In the future some people might discover those paintings to see what animals looked like!” 

We also appreciated that a work of fiction had beautiful elements of story telling and images that a non-fiction book wouldn’t have. When Kali plays the bow string, Winter writes: The stars came close to listen. Such a wonderful image that makes the story more powerful. We liked how Kali’s Song challenged our imaginations and had us think about things differently.

Kali’s music lures the mammoths to him and fascinated, all of the other hunters lay down their weapons. Kali must be a shaman they decide. Winter leaves us wondering – do the hunters not kill any of the mammoths? Or do they eventually resume their hunt? In Wooly Mammoth we had learned that the people’s survival depended on the hunt and that they used all parts of the mammoth (meat, fur, tusks, bone) for things that they needed. Our discussion was intense. Kali had the skill to lure the animals and he seemed to love them. But he loved his people. Wouldn’t his skill help the hunt? What would he do? The students decided that Winter left us thinking on purpose. We would have to come to our own decisions.

Because the mammoths seemed so majestic and wonderful we wanted to think they wouldn’t be hunted but now that our knowledge included information about how people who lived thousands of years ago depended on the hunt, we had some different ideas about the outcome. Students were able to make text to text connections and this furthered their thinking.

Kali’s Song is a beautiful book. Highly recommended.

How do you help students make text to text connections? Recognize that their background knowledge influences their thinking?