Monday, May 28, 2018

The girl who drew butterflies: How Maria Merian’s art changed science by Joyce Sidman

There’s been a recent resurgence of interest in Maria Merian and her life and studies well repay that interest. Sidman combines her interest in poetry, the natural world, nonfiction, and butterflies to create a unique and satisfying biography of Merian that explores her life, time period, and the science of the creatures she studied.

The book begins with a glossary of butterfly terms, including the words Merian used. It is illustrated with historic engravings, original maps, photographs, and Maria Merian’s own art. It includes a narrative introduction and a final chapter putting Merian’s life into context. Plentiful back matter includes a timeline, sources, bibliography, author’s note, and index. The book is beautifully made and arranged, bringing the artistic fervor of Merian’s own accessible science books to the reader.

The bulk of the text is arranged like a butterfly’s life cycle. It begins with the egg, hatching, and the first instar (stage of a caterpillar’s life) which detail Maria’s youth until her marriage. She was born into an engraver’s family and, when her father died, her mother remarried a painter. Her interest in butterflies and other insects never waned and neither did her love of art. But she was also a dutiful daughter, helping in her fathers’ business, learning household duties, and all of the things a young woman of the 1600s would have learned. By the sixth chapter, she is eighteen and marrying. Eventually she separated from her husband and took her daughters to live in a religious community. Later they officially divorced and he remarried. She then moved on to Amsterdam, which offered her the opportunity to support her daughters and continue her pursuit of art and science. At the age of 52, when she would have been considered elderly, she traveled with her younger daughter Hannah to the Dutch colony of Surinam, there she expanded her research into the insects, amphibians, and plants of the colony, returning only when she became ill. She died at the age of sixty-nine, leaving behind an exquisite legacy of beautifully illustrated books detailing the life and habitats of her beloved caterpillars and butterflies, as well as a volume on Surinam which modern scientists believe to be the only record of a number of extinct species.

Sidman uses her skill with words to weave together not only the facts and story of Merian’s life but also the wider context of the world in the 1600s, pausing to consider the horrific slave and sugar trade in Surinam, the role of religion in Maria Merian’s world, and the numerous scientific facts about caterpillars and butterflies. Many quotes from Merian’s own work are included, as well as illustrations from her books.

Verdict: While a biography of a medieval woman fascinated by caterpillars may not seem like a popular choice, Sidman’s skill in writing and excellent mix of science, story, and history, not to mention the beautiful layout of the book, will make this a popular choice for readers with only a minimal amount of booktalking needed. Highly recommended.

ISBN: 9780544717138; Published 2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Borrowed from another library in the consortium; Purchased for the library

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