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2009 National Book Award Finalist,
Young People's Literature

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Deborah Heiligman
Charles and Emma:
The Darwins’ Leap of Faith

Henry Holt and Company

Video from the 2009 National Book Awards Finalist Reading

Photo credit: Matt Peyton


Beginning with Charles Darwin’s decision to “marry” or “not marry,” Deborah Heiligman’s dual biography brings the reader into the personal lives of two fascinating people: Charles, a man of science, and Emma, a woman of faith. Through meticulous research, vibrant prose, and inspired integration of journals and personal correspondence, Heiligman reveals how, over a lifetime of love and loss, success and setback, the Darwins’ religious differences evolved into a portrait of mutual respect and devotion.


Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, his revolutionary treatise on evolution, in 1859. Even today, the theory of evolution creates tension between the scientific and religious communities. This same debate raged within Darwin himself and played an important part in his marriage: Emma’s faith gave Charles a lot to think about as he worked on his controversial theory.

This biography of Charles Darwin takes a personal look at the man behind evolutionary theory. His children doubled as scientific specimens, and his wife’s religious convictions made him rethink how the world would receive his ideas. What emerges is a portrait of a brilliant man, a radical science, and a great love.


Deborah Heiligman has published nearly thirty books on subjects ranging from bees to babies, chromosomes to Christmas, Darwin to Diwali, metamorphosis to mathematics, including From Caterpillar to Butterfly, the Celebrate Holidays Around the World series to the brand new Cool Dog, School Dog. Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith, published in January, 2009, received five starred reviews, is on two Booklist top ten lists, and is a finalist for the National Book Award. Deborah enjoys speaking to teachers, librarians, and writers, and has been doing school visits for many years.

A former editor and freelance writer, she still occasionally writes for publications such as The Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and on her own blog. She is married to the author Jonathan Weiner, (The Beak of the Finch). Formerly a Pennsylvanian, she lives in New York City.


Deborah Heiligman's Official Site

Deborah Heiligman's Blog

VIDEO - Features Nonfiction Children's Book Authors (including Deborah Heiligman) discussing INK (Interesting Nonfiction for Kids)

INK Blog


WEDNESDAY, October 21, 2009 – WASHINGTON, DC
2:00 – 3:30 ish pm
DC Public Library
4200 Kansas Ave NW (at Georgia)
Washington, DC 20011-7294

10:30 AM – 1:00 pm
Politics & Prose Book store
5018 Connecticut Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20008


Excerpt from Charles and Emma, pages 51-52:

As Charles looked at the beaks of the finches, he began to see evidence of the fight for survival that precipitated the change. He began to see that beaks adapted to the kinds of seeds available on the island. Big beaks could crack open big, hard seeds; small beaks were better for hard-to-get-at seeds. This was not God’s design; it was design brought about by the need for food. His birds and Malthus’s theory had given him the mechanism for the transmutation of species.

In his notebooks, Charles began to write about his idea of how it all happened. He thought about how traits get passed down, over and over again. He surmised that traits that are passed on change and adapt according to what is needed for survival. These changes—very small ones—add up over time to make bigger changes. These bigger changes result in the creation of new species. He called his idea “modification by natural selection.” He knew he had to study his idea in minute and exacting detail, in an organized and disciplined way. But he now had “a theory by which to work.” Observing Jenny, reading Malthus, thinking about the finches, he put it all together. N

He was beyond excited. He now knew for sure that this theory was going to be the governing force of the rest of his life.

But what about Emma?

His theory essentially eliminated God’s role in the process of creation. What would Emma think? He knew he was flirting with materialism, the philosophical doctrine that says that there are no spiritual or divine forces in nature, only matter. If Emma knew, would she want him to be flirting with her? In one of his notebooks he wrote, “Oh you materialist!” There was no denying—to himself—what he was becoming.


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