By: Jan Paul Schutten

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Jan Paul Schutten’s energetic account of the amazing story of evolution and the ­origins of life, with his precise yet light-hearted tone, is truly unique and a most admirable achievement. Het raadsel van alles wat leeft (The Mystery of Life) is the ultimate non-fiction book for children: inspirational and a model of how a subtle balance between facts, images and imagi­nation can make the invisible visible.

The structure is a little like a lively, everyday conversation. Stimulating and amusing questions such as “Why did life begin in the sea?”, “Are we all descended from a slime­ball?”, “Why is dying sometimes a good idea?” are followed by concise and vividly illustrated answers, without dumbing down this complex subject matter.

As billions of years pass by at breathtak­ing speed, the reader learns about all kinds of fascinating things. About the age of our planet and the universe. About Darwin and his finches. About sexual selection and the survival of the fittest as the most important driving forces in evolution. And about why our body is still like a fish’s, like a mackerel’s, to be precise.

Yes, “absolutely everything that lives is a miracle,” writes Schutten. “That includes you, and it also includes the slipper animal­cule, which is smaller than the dot on this i.” It even includes the bacteria living in the stinky socks of Jos Grootjes from Driel, an everyman character devised by Schutten to represent the modern human.

lifeSupported by Floor Rieder’s fantastic illustrations, which sometimes clarify and sometimes add humour to the text, Schutten employs playful examples and striking metaphors to demonstrate the magic of the real world. Red blood cells, for instance, are “just like little trucks transporting oxygen to every corner of your body”. DNA is a “complete blueprint for a living creature”.

Schutten’s respect for those who doubt the theory of evolution also deserves praise. “You have to decide for yourself what you believe,” he says – just as long as you keep asking questions about the mystery of life.