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.
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!
Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian: ** (2 stars)
Some lovely songs to flutter by:
Some great butterfly and caterpillar crafts: