In the early eighteenth century, German naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian sailed to Suriname. There, she painted insects, flowers, birds, and reptiles. Her books were well received in Europe, attracting the attention of scientists and naturalists. When few women traveled independently or pursued careers (as opposed to work for survival), Merian did both – and in a field that combined science and art, at that.
In Summer Birds, Margarita Engle imagines Merian as a thirteen-year-old naturalist in her native Germany. The simple first-person narrative describes how young Maria catches and studies caterpillars and butterflies, among other small creatures, and learns about their development. Her patient, scientific approach contrasts with the superstitious claims of her neighbors: insects are evil beings that arise spontaneously from mud. Merian also discusses her forays into naturalist art and her desire to share her discoveries with the rest of the world. By focusing on one remarkable girl who became an extraordinary woman, Engle introduces young readers to various creatures’ life cycles, some aspects of medieval thought, and one intrepid explorer in fourteen double-page spreads.
Julie Paschkis’ illustrations capture the marvels Merian saw in nature and those she created in her art. One illustration shows Merian’s brush applying a finishing touch to a red flower where a butterfly sips nectar. Another butterfly rests on her hand as she paints, suggesting the close relationship between the woman, nature, and her art. In Summer Birds’ most striking image, a luna moth spans most of a two-page spread, its green wings brilliantly illuminated against a black background. A tiny Maria kneels in the corner and gazes up at the magnificent moth. In her hand, she holds a twig with a tiny caterpillar. For a moment, we see the world as Merian may have and we wonder with her at the moth.
Both an excellent science book and picture-book biography, Summer Birds should encourage kids’ interest in entomology and nature in general. It also invites them to see art and science not as two separate disciplines, but as two adventurous and often intertwining paths to knowledge.
Dorothy A. Dahm