I don’t often feature long nonfiction books, but I was smitten and gobsmacked (I love both of those words) by “The Girl Who Drew Butterflies,” a new 148-page picture book by the poet, Joyce Sidman.
Maria Merian was born in Germany in the mid 1600s. If you haven’t heard of her, you’re not alone. She’s one of many women in the arts and sciences who disappeared from or were pushed to the margins of the historical record.
She had the kind of guts and gumption that sent other less fortunate women to be burnt at the stake—all because she consorted with vile pests like grubs and caterpillars. But she wasn’t a witch; she was one of the first naturalists who observed creepy crawlies and their egg-laying, cocoon-spinning, metamorphosing behaviors directly.
If the table of contents doesn’t pique your interest:
Perhaps the additional spreads that describe the workplace of copper engravers, the slave trade to Surinam, women as the unsung heroes of the workforce, witch hunts and the dangers of being different, religion in the 1600s and how it affected women, and how curiosity cabinets became our first museums will entice you to take a look. Any middle grade student who would like to write a paper on the plight of women in this era will find a wealth of material from this woman’s life as well as her milieu.
But then the science. Oh, the science! How she painstakingly sought to observe hundreds of insects in their habitats. How she tried to recreate those habitats.
And the art. Oh, the art! She made her own paintbrushes, ground her own pigments, and then meticulously recreated some of the most gorgeous plants and insects found on this planet.
And her adventures! She and her daughter sailed (unaccompanied by any male friend or relative) to Surinam and lived their for nearly three years (this is the late 1600s!!), studying and creating images of the flora and fauna. What a woman! She swooned over the flavor of pineapple. “…as if one had mixed together grapes, apricots, red currants, apples and pears…When one cuts into it, the whole room smells of them.”
There is so much in this book, I can’t understand how it can be selling for only $12.59 on Amazon. And it’s only $17.99 retail. All that research and writing for so little!
This is a must have for all the budding entomologists, the naturalists, the artists, or the “STEMinists” in your family and/or school.
Oh, and the prologue called “The Girl in the Garden” is exquisitely beautiful in the way it evokes young Maria’s curiosity about insects and how this became the driving passion that carried her through an astonishing 69 years of adventure, art, and science.
Title: The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science
Author: Joyce Sidman
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018