Butterflies, mud and stick-on velcro

posted in: Julie Paschkis, Margarita Engle | 7

Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian by Margarita Engle and Julie Paschkis was a book I made a point of recently tracking down. It is about butterflies, a biography of a talented and independent woman of the sort I hope will inspire my children, and there’s a link to the Netherlands – so all in all it seemed like a book just right for my girls.

Photo: eye of einstein

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647 Frankfurt, Germany -1717 Amsterdam, The Netherlands) was a was a naturalist and scientific illustrator who made a significant contribution in the field of entomology. In the 17th century it was widely believed that butterflies and other insects were formed from mud and therefore magic and evil. But Maria Merian did not accept this and instead took special interest in observing and recording the process of metamorphosis, ultimately showing that the process was a natural one, not something to be feared. At the turn of the 18th century she travelled to Suriname where she continued her research into plants and animals. At this time it was unusual both for women to travel independently, and for women to be engaged in scientific research.

Summer Birds is a retelling of this story through the eyes of a 13 year old Maria Merian. The first person narrative gives an immediacy and relevance to the story. It doesn’t feel like you’re reading a biography of a historical figure, but rather the thoughts of any young girl, put down on paper in her diary – thoughts about her passions and hopes for the future.

Julie Paschkis’ illustrations are rich in colour, and in their layout and detail mimic botanical illustrations from the period when Maria Merian lived. I’m a fan of Paschkis’ work, especially in textile design, but in this book I felt an opportunity was lost in not including an example or two of Merian’s original illustrations. There is an interesting and useful historical note at the end of the book and this would have been the perfect place to showcase an original illustration (click here for an online slide show of Merian’s work).

Despite my minor complaint, this is a great book if you’re studying life cycles and metamorphosis, if you want to look through a different window on this historical period or if you want another book telling the story of a bright, clever and talented woman.

After reading this story my girls metamorphosed themselves into butterflies. I cut wings out of coloured card and attached them to each other using a strip of wide ribbon and tape. The girls then decorated their wings and we talked about symmetry, and finally I attached the wings to my girls using stick-on velcro.

Then we spent an afternoon fluttering in the garden…

…and sipping nectar from the flowers!

I’m sure my girls would have liked an excuse to pretend they were emerging from mud, but unfortunately that didn’t happen this time!

Some lovely songs to flutter by:

  • Cocooned in My Blanket by Kesang Marstrand (about a child all snuggled up in a blanket who thinks of becoming a butterfly)
  • Butterfly by Elizabeth Mitchell and Lisa Loeb
  • Butterfly Day by Mr Richard
  • Don’t Bother Any Butterflies by Eric Herman and the Invisible Band
  • Butterflies Flit by The Wiggles
  • Butterfly by Recess Monkey
  • And just one song if you would rather be a caterpillar: Caterpillar, caterpillar by Kira Willey


  • Some great butterfly and caterpillar crafts:

  • A butterfly shaped fan for beating the heat of summer with from maya*made
  • These beautiful dragonflies from Twig and Toadstool could be adapted to make glittery butterflies
  • Utterly gorgeous stained glass butterflies from Flossie Teacakes
  • How to make your own bug and butterfly collecting net with this tutorial from Imagine childhood
  • Coffee filter butterflies from Sycamore stirrings
  • A wreath of butterflies from Alisa Burke
  • Felt caterpillars from Ikat Bag
  • A grass caterpillar from lottielulu


  • Although we really liked Summer Birds, I think our favourite butterfly book remains Lois Ehlert’s Waiting for Wings. Do you have a favourite butterfly book?

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    7 Responses

    1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by zizou from Djerba and evildrako, Zoe Toft. Zoe Toft said: Butterflies, mud and stick-on velcro – what we've been reading and playing over the weekend! http://bit.ly/as1Vqh […]

    2. Zoe, I really love those wings. My two are going to want to make some as soon as I show them this post!

      • Wings are always a hit I think, whether fairy or butterfly! And I’d had those circles of paper for ages just waiting for a good project for them so I was really pleased to find the perfect excuse to get them off the craft shelf!

    3. I love that you created your own wings. Has M grown antenaee in one of the pictures?

    4. Hi Kristine,
      Very observant of you! Yes, we made antennae by winding some pipe cleaners around a hair band – very easy for the kids to do, but they didn’t stay on their heads for long!

    5. Beautiful wings, they did a great job! Mich x

      • Hi Michelle, Thanks! And so nice to have you leave a comment for the first time here :-)

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