Book Review: The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science by Joyce Sidman
Bugs, of all kinds, were considered to be “born of mud” and to be “beasts of the devil.” Why would anyone, let alone a girl, want to study and observe them?
One of the first naturalists to observe live insects directly, Maria Sibylla Merian was also one of the first to document the metamorphosis of the butterfly. In this visual nonfiction biography, richly illustrated throughout with full-color original paintings by Merian herself, the Newbery Honor–winning author Joyce Sidman paints her own picture of one of the first female entomologists and a woman who flouted convention in the pursuit of knowledge and her passion for insects.
Maria Merian had always been curious. Insects fascinated her. Her father ran a publishing shop, so young Maria was always surrounded by intellectuals, explorers, and free-thinkers at the shop. When Maria was only three, her father died. Her mother remarried, this time to an artist whose specialty was painting ornamental flowers. He took the time to teach Maria how to draw. Flowers and other plants filled their home and garden, and so did insects. At this time, people were unsure of the origin of insects, believing they spontaneously generated. Maria took it upon herself to study these insects, trying to figure out how they were created, birthed, and what changes they underwent. Despite gender restrictions at the time, and having to focus on things like running a household and preparing to be married young, Maria continued her studies and her art. She helped her husband open an engraving and publishing firm, where they published books of Maria’s flower and insect prints. Word spread about her insect collection, with people bringing her specimens to study. Her new book focused entirely on insects and refuted the idea that they spontaneously generate. Maria continued to learn, collect, and paint, eventually working independently as an artist and a businesswoman.
Though I wasn’t at all familiar with her before this book, I’m totally fascinated by the boundaries she traversed to pursue her passion. She was truly doing groundbreaking work. Aside from the main narrative about Maria’s life, there is ample information about other things of the era (religion, art, women in the workforce, witch hunts). There are also photos, engravings, maps, and paintings in the book, include a great many paintings and prints done by Maria. A glossary, timeline, quote sources, bibliography, and index round out this utterly compelling and gorgeous look at a pioneer of science. A great addition for all middle school collections.
Review copy courtesy of the publisher
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 02/20/2018
Filed under: Book Reviews
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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