May 2010

The magic of butterflies and moths

By Margarita Engle
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While young people might recognize the name of Marie Curie, the stories of many other women who pursued scientific research throughout history remain unknown. In Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian, Margarita Engle introduces young readers to the fascinating figure of Maria Merian, a 17th-century naturalist and illustrator who advanced knowledge about butterflies, moths and other insects.

With its clear, lyrical text and charming, richly colored artwork by Julie Paschkis, Summer Birds focuses on Merian’s efforts to capture insects (secretly so that she wouldn’t be accused of witchcraft) to study them.

Engle sets the stage by telling readers that “summer birds” was a medieval term for butterflies and moths. In the 1600s, people thought these creatures were very mysterious—appearing as they do in warm weather, but disappearing again at the end of summer. In fact, some people thought these insects came from the mud, as if by magic, and might be evil.

From the time she was a young teen, though, the German-born Merian set out to study and record the life cycle of butterflies and other insects, helping to disprove the notion of “spontaneous generation” from mud through her research.

With her botanical illustrations, she chronicled the details of the insects’ life cycle, being careful, for instance, to record which leaves certain caterpillars ate.

Through Merian’s reflections on her future dreams, readers get a sense of where her pursuits eventually will take her: “I will be free to travel to faraway lands, painting all sorts of rare summer birds and flowers. .  . Someday I will put my paintings into a book. Then everyone will know the truth about small animals that change their forms.”

Summer Birds includes a historical note about Merian’s life and career. She traveled to South America to pursue her studies and published books about the life cycles of flowers and insects.

Children are always fascinated by the magic of butterflies and moths emerging from cocoons. While it stands on its own as a lovely picture book that children and families will enjoy, Summer Birds is also a welcome addition to literature about the fascinating history of science.

Deborah Hopkinson wrote about another woman scientist in Maria’s Comet, a book on America’s first woman astronomer, Maria Mitchell.

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