Last week’s book of wonder was a picturebook about the poet Pablo Neruda. This week’s book of wonder is a picturebook biography of another real person: this time, scientist and artist Maria Merian, born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1647. Maria, like Pablo, was possessed of a love for the natural world from a young age.
The story begins with an unelaborated-upon note:
“Summer birds” was a medieval name for the mysterious butterflies and moths that appeared suddenly during warm weather and vanished in the fall.
This is the only external voice. The whole of the rest of the story is narrated by Maria, our child protagonist. Maria is fond of the summer birds, or butterflies, that fill the sky every year.
Everyone believes that these insects come from mud, as if by magic.
I disagree. I am only thirteen years old, but I capture insects. I study them.
Maris observes the caterpillars and butterflies she catches closely. She explains the life cycle of her tiny creatures and carefully draws each stage of life. Her drawings render the leaves and flowers her specimens are drawn to.
Sometimes I think that I am like a summer bird, waiting to fly. Right now, I am a child, but in a few years, I will be grown. When I am a grown-up, I will be free to travel to faraway lands, painting all sorts of rare summer birds and flowers.
She plans future drawings and observations: frogs, like butterflies, have life cycles. They do not come from mud, either.
As the story is told from Maria’s perspective, we meet her at only one stage of her life, when she is thirteen years old and still working on her observations of the butterfly. This narrow slice of her life could feel cramped, but it does not: Maria is a girl with a sense of history. She knows the cultural narrative around small creatures, and she has her own notes and sketches, made with deliberation and care, to disprove what “everybody knows.” She also has a goal and the determination to get there: she wants to travel (in fact, she does: Maria and her sister Dorothea travel by themselves to South America, no small feat in the 1600s!), to continue observing the small creatures widely considered evil, and to publish her studies. There is an expansiveness to Maria’s mind that is conveyed tidily through her narrative tone and through the illustrations.
As for the illustrations, what can I say? Julie Paschkis’s art is as beautiful as ever. We see Maris’a butterflies, caterpillars, frogs, tadpoles, and egg sacs. We see Maria standing with a butterfly-catching net, hand on hip, one eyebrow tiled, as if she is about to grin and run off in pursuit and only pauses for a moment to invite the reader to join in. We see her drawings, lovely and with a sense of the medieval, and we see the fantastical creatures under the soil that Maria’s countryfolk believed to exist. The illustrative style is closely modeled after Maria’s own, which is an absolute joy.
Two completely irrelevant notes: Does the drawing of Maria Merian on the 500 DM banknote not look like the ideal of a Jane Austen heroine? And is anyone else reminded of Rachel Hartman’s drawing style in the illustrations?