By Deborah Hopkinson, pictures by Jen Corace
Disney-Hyperion Books, 2010
$16.99, ages 4-8, 32 pages
Any child who's ever hunkered down to watch a worm crawl or mixed water with mud and grass to see what she'd get will think Henrietta Darwin's childhood was idyllic after reading this fictionalized account.
Growing up the daughter of one of the most inquisitive naturalists ever to live, the father of natural selection Charles Darwin, "Etty," as her family called her, loved to be with her father as he examined the natural world.
Etty and her siblings often gathered around his feet to hear stories about the mischief he'd get into as a child -- like when he tried to catch three beetles and made the mistake of putting one in his mouth since his hands were full.
But more than anything, Etty adored his stories of observation and imagined traveling with him to the Galapagos Islands, feeling the bony shell of a giant tortoise or giggling at the courtship of the blue-footed booby, in which the male seabird puffs himself up and stamps his turquoise feet like a silly clown.
Perhaps the most important thing her father collected were questions, and by example, Darwin's children grew up being inquisitive too. When their dad studied worms, Etty and sister Lizzie stuck knitting needles into worm holes to try to measure how deep they went.
On other occasions, the siblings put seeds in salt water to see if they would still grow and one time brother Franky played a bassoon over worms to see if they could hear.
Sometimes Darwin would enlist their help, like the afternoon Mother and Cook tried to teach Etty to bake a honey cake, but were interrupted by her father coming home from his Thinking Path, the name Darwin gave a sand-covered path winding around their home.
Darwin had just paused in front of a bean pole tent outside the kitchen to ponder the path of bees when he walked to the doorway and called to Etty to bring out the flour shaker.
Thrilled to get away from her baking lesson and be outside, Etty ran out the door anxious to be part of her father's explorations.
This time, Darwin wanted to know how fast the bumblebee, or "humblebee," pollinated and asked his kids to dust bees with flour, then choose one bee to follow over the course of one minute.
As Darwin hit his stop watch, Etty raced off with her siblings into the garden on the Great Bee Experiment, an enchanting game of chase to see whose fuzzy little fellow could transfer pollen to the most flowers.
It's here that Hopkinson chooses to end the story, with Etty counting her bee's last flower as her father hits the stop watch.
Though abrupt, I thought it a perfect ending, as it captured the energy that builds during games of chase and the adrenalin that suddenly backs up inside you when someone calls, "Stop."
Best Parts: Corace's illustrations, with their clean, delicate lines and soft, earthy hues, make Etty's childhood look as idyllic as Hopkinson describes it.
Darwin's children, in their pinafores and knickers, always appear sweet-faced and contented, reminding me of the pastoral illustrations of the great English illustrator Kate Greenaway.
This is one of those stories that leaves you torn between the world it creates and the world outside.
At story's end, you want to linger inside the pages and at the same time go outdoors and poke around, maybe measure a few bug holes or find your own bumblebee to chase.