As an admirer of the the subject of this picture book and the author, Margarita Engle, who won a Newbery Honor for The Surrender Tree, and whose other histories told in verse include, most recently, The Firefly Letters, I looked forward to Summer Birds (Henry Holt). And wasn’t disappointed. The first person narrative focuses on the life of the artist and scientist at thirteen, though the book ends with her wondering about her life as adult. Accompanied by Julie Paschkis’s most whimsical painting, the narrative gracefully moves from speculation to fact, giving a hint of the adult Maria becomes, bravely traveling with one of her daughters from Europe to South America to study plants, insects, and reptiles.
Maria Merian was born in Germany in 1647, and Margarita Engle shows how at the time most thought that butterflies, which many called summer birds, were born from mud in a mysterious and frightening process they referred to as spontaneous generation. Maria disagreed and kept watch. We get not only a portrait of one important person, but see how many scientists must buck convention, observe, and take notes, often, as Maria Merian did, with pictures as well as words.
Artist Julie Paschkis www.juliepaschkis.com uses bright and light colors to emphasize the joys of discovery and nature. We see Maria, dressed throughout in green dress and white apron, in scenes including waving a butterfly net, eyes intent on a jar holding a tiny creature, painting, perched in a tree, and, probably my favorite, running a printing press to produce one of the books that would increase her fame: a frog on a red book watches. Other pages are devoted to butterflies and flowers that seem to dance. Images of insects and the plants they rest and munch on make up the cool green endpapers, which, because of the monotone, have the feel of an old-fashioned field guide.
The Historical Note at the end is both eloquent and informative, noting how both Maria’s father and stepfather were unusually, for the time, supportive of her work in what was generally a male field. We get a swift overview of her accomplishments and can see why she deserves a place in the history of science.
For more information about the book, see http://us.macmillan.com/summerbirds And for an Interview with Margarita Engle about Summer Birds, and the butterflies her sisters cared for in their childhood home, visit http://bookstogether.squarespace.com/blog/2010/3/29/summer-birds-maria-merian-and-margarita-engle.html
To learn a little more about Maria Sibylla Merian, you can read the chapter about her I included in Girls Who Looked Under Rocks http://www.jeannineatkins.com/books/girls.htm And if that’s not enough, I recommend the biography by Kim Todd, Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis.
Finally, for more Nonfiction Monday posts, see: http://www.abbythelibrarian.com/2010/07/nonfiction-monday-roundup-and-bat.html