In 2010, Margarita Engle published Summer Birds, a lyrical picture-book biography of 17th century naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian. This week, Engle chatted with Kidsbiographer about introducing this little-known figure to children and rekindling adults’ deep love for the natural world.
Kidsbiographer: How did you learn about Maria Sibylla Merian, and what inspired you to write about her life for young readers?
Margarita Engle: I am a botanist married to an entomologist. Until recently, botanists and entomologists were just about the only people familiar with Merian’s work. I wrote an early draft of Summer Birds almost thirty years ago, after admiring some of her work in a rare book collection. When I couldn’t find a publisher, I put the manuscript in a drawer, and forgot about it. A few years ago, I was cleaning out my desk, and came across it. I revised it and sent it to the editor of my other books for young people. She accepted it and chose Julie Paschkis, an amazing illustrator, whose artwork attains the perfect blend of realism and imagination.
Kidsbiographer: What sort of biographical and scientific research did you do to write Summer Birds?
Margarita Engle: Merian was not well-known in the U.S. until recently, largely because her artwork was collected by Tsar Peter the Great, and archived in St. Petersburg, where it was not accessible until after the fall of the Soviet Union. Scholars have now produced some wonderful adult biographies that were extremely helpful. As far as I know, Summer Birds is the first children’s book about Merian.
Kidsbiographer: Summer Birds presents Merian as a budding young naturalist, observing butterflies and other small creatures and dreaming about the day when she can spread her own wings and travel to distant lands. How much information exists about Merian’s early years, and did you have to extrapolate from material about her adult life to write about her youth?
Margarita Engle: I did not have to guess about the events of her childhood, because there are documented accounts of her life cycle observations. When she was thirteen, she began studying silkworms that had been carried to Germany by one of her relatives. Of course, the way I chose to write this biography in first person did require some emotional extrapolation. I wanted to imagine her feelings and thoughts, not just state her actions.
Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received from young readers about Summer Birds?
Margarita Engle: Butterflies fascinate even the youngest children, so this book has an advantage simply because the illustrations are so gorgeous, and the text is easy to understand. I think I’ve been most touched by the reaction of adults, who are, of course, the ones reading to very young children. I’m relieved to see that most adults — even city dwellers – have not lost their childhood love of nature.
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?
Margarita Engle: My other biographical works are young adult novels in verse, including The Poet Slave of Cuba, about Juan Francisco Manzano, a slave who wrote poetry while he was still enslaved; The Surrender Tree, about Rosa la Bayamesa, a nurse who hid in the wilderness and used wild plants to heal soldiers from both sides during Cuba’s three wars for independence from Spain; and The Firefly Letters, about Fredrika Bremer, a Swedish suffragist who visited Cuba in 1851. My next novel in verse is The Wild Book (Harcourt, 2012), inspired by stories my grandmother told me about her childhood. I am currently working on a novel in verse about one of Cuba’s great abolitionist poets, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda.