Some years it happens that I read multiple books on a given subject. It's not always purposeful - sometimes the blogosphere is talking about a book, or my library's Mock Awards list includes a particular book, and then suddenly I've accumulated several books on a topic. Last year there were two topics that I read fairly widely on - civil rights and Charles Darwin. So, having already read Charles and Emma (Deborah Heiligman) and Kathryn Lasky's One Beetle Too Many under my belt, I was ready to start The Humblebee Hunter.
The story is told from Charles' daughter's point of view. Henrietta is stuck in the kitchen learning to bake at the beginning of the story, but she really longs to be outside with her father. Etty tells readers little snippets about Darwin, his questioning nature and his methods, giving children a vague understanding of his life. What readers will take away from this story is his enthusiasm for children and those children's involvement in what looks like a fun research project. Darwin's children each identify a bumblebee and observe it buzzing from flower to flower for one minute to count the number of flowers it visits. The book ends with an arresting full-page illustration which completes the book in a strong manner.
Deborah Hopkinson is known for writing fictionalized picture-book-style biographies of historical figures, including my favorite of her books, Maria's Comet (I lived on Nantucket for two years). This book follows in the same style - the subtitle clearly states "inspired by the life and experiments of Charles Darwin and his children". There are notes at the end to give additional information on Darwin and his family, which I always appreciate. However, I find it confusing that there is no explanation of why Darwin and his children call the bees "humblebees" until the very end of the note on the Darwin family. And that mention does not identify whether that is a nickname the family created or a British word for bee. To be fair, there doesn't seem to be another likely place to put this information - but while reading I spent a lot of time distracted by the name. I do think this would be a great introduction to Charles Darwin to begin a unit of study - it humanizes him and includes his family in his scientific work.
While I really liked the plot of The Humblebee Hunter, I loved the illustrations. Jen Corace has also illustrated for Amy Krouse Rosenthal and the newer Disney picture book version of Hansel and Gretel, but I think her illustrations are a perfect match for the text. I believe the illustrations are done in watercolor and ink (as a reviewer, I really miss the description of the artistic process when it is omitted from the front matter), and the colors are terrific. Etty wears a distinctive teal color which makes her really pop from the pages. The colors and faces are reminiscent of 1950's art, but in a lovely, moody way. There are a variety of illustrations - spot, single page and double-page spreads to catch children's eyes.
Except for the quibble of the Humblebee's name, this book really added to my understanding of Charles Darwin and his family. I'd recommend it for reading to children ages 6 through 9, but it could be used as supplementary material in almost any grade's study of Darwin. Well done.