The Butterfly Had a Friend in this Girl

Want to read more about the world but don’t have the time?  Why not browse the children’s section of libraries and bookstores.  There are amazing and accurate biographies and historical accounts in picture-book format.  If you’re a parent, they offer a two-for-one deal—you get that sometimes dreaded bedtime story out of the way and you learn something in the process.

One such book is Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian.  This jewel of a book is written by poet/novelist Margarita Engle and is illustrated by Julie Paschkis whose brilliant artwork brings this incredible story to life.

Summer Birds, The Butterflies of Maria Merian, 2010
Summer Birds, The Butterflies of Maria Merian, 2010 by Margarita Engle.

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What are “summer birds”?  They are butterflies and moths. People in the middle ages used the term because these insects only appeared in the warm months of the year.

How did people back then explain these creatures?  Many considered them evil beings that erupted from the mud magically.

This is an illustration in Maria Merian's comprehenisve book, The Metamorphoses of the Insects of Suriname published in 1705.
One of  Maria Merian’s illustrations depicting the life cycle of the Giant Silk Moth.

Who was Maria Merian and how does she figure in the story?  Merian was a scientist who discredited this notion.  She was born in 1647 in Germany.  As a child, she captured and studied these insects and observed their amazing transformation from caterpillar to cocoon to butterflies.

But science wasn’t her only talent.  Merian was born into a family of artists.  At a young age, she showed enough skill for painting that her father, an engraver, predicted she’d become great one day.  When he died and her mother later remarried a painter, he too encouraged the young Merian.  She would grow up to travel the world collecting, drawing and painting the life cycle of insects along with the plants and flowers on which they lived.

Why should this book be in elementary school libraries?  For one thing, the animal world fascinates children.  Sharks, spiders, snakes…kids snap up books about such creatures all the time at our library.  For another thing, writer Engle is also a poet, and the book’s concise but beautiful prose reflects this.  Finally, the book celebrates girl power.  I mean here’s a female in the 1600s who was a scientist, explorer and artist.  Her work was admired and collected by the likes of Peter the Great. Any 21st century girl or boy would be inspired by such a woman.

Here's a paper cut design from Pashkis in keeping with this holiday season.
Here’s a paper cut design from Julie Paschkis in keeping with the holiday season.

BONUS BIT:  Julie Paschkis’ illustrations are so good in this book, I decided to check out her web site.  Turns out, she also quilts, designs fabric, and crafts paper-cut art. Click here to visit.

Kindness in War

Most stories about World War II Europe dwell on the Nazis and the horrors humans inflicted on one another.  But in reading The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom’s bestselling autobiography, I was struck by instances of a different sort–the kindnesses that occurred during this awful time.  Take a minute to read about these big and small acts, along with why I feel this book should be read by all.

The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom with John and Elizabeth Sherrill, 1971
The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom with John and Elizabeth Sherrill, 1971

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The kindness of two middle-aged sisters:  When war broke out, Corrie and Betsie ten Boom were already in their 50s, still living in their childhood home.  They would have passed through history unnoticed had the Nazis not invaded their beloved Holland in 1940.  But when their Jewish neighbors were harassed and later carted off to work camps, they acted.  They smuggled goods, medicines and fake passports to the Jews.  Eventually, they hid Jews in their home. This was no mere charitable act.  The two sisters were found out and sent to a concentration camp for their activities where Betsie later died.

Here is the secret room built in the Ten Boom home to house Jews during a raid. The home has been turned into a museum and people can see the small space.
Here is the secret room built in the ten Boom home to conceal the Jews during raids. The home is now a museum.

The kindness of a talented architect:  When word spread of the ten Boom’s harboring of Jews, a “Dr. Smit” paid a visit to their Haarlem Watch shop and home.  Smit, whose true name is not revealed in the book, was part of the Dutch underground as well as a renowned architect.  He traveled all over, designing and building secret compartments.  He knew the sisters needed a foolproof hiding place for their Jewish guests.  He built a secret room in Corrie’s bedroom that helped conceal seven Jews.  All but one survived the war.

The kindness of the Jews themselves:  The ten Booms had taken in six Jews when Mary Itallie, an elderly asthmatic woman, came asking for refuge.  Her uncontrollable coughing could easily give away the whole group during a raid.  As such, the group set up a secret vote to determine whether she stay or go.  When tallied, it was unanimous.  She would remain.

“It seems to me that we’re all here in your house because of some difficulty or other.  We’re the orphan children—the ones nobody else wanted…I vote that Mary stay,” said one Jewish resident.

The kindness of a nurse:  The sisters were jailed when their actions were discovered.  They endured inhumane conditions at prison, and Corrie was desperately ill.   Weak and filthy, she was finally brought to a doctor.  A “trim, white-uniformed” nurse saw her first and led her to a bathroom.  “Quick! Is there any way I can help?,” the nurse said furtively as a soldier waited outside.  Corrie asked for a Bible and soap.  The nurse later slipped Corrie soap and four small booklets that were the Gospels.

The kindness of a Nazi officer:  Lieutenant Rahms was assigned to interrogate Corrie about her underground activities.  Instead of getting information from her, the troubled man was touched by Corrie’s Christian faith and its message of hope and love for all.  The good-hearted man was trapped in a prison of his own, he told Corrie, but he did manage to do her a good turn.  He arranged a family reunion of sorts between Corrie, her sisters, and her brother. For the long-separated siblings, it was the greatest gift.

Corrie Ten Boom,
Corrie Ten Boom, 1892-1983

Kindness aplenty:  There were many others that helped Corrie and Betsie during their prison stay and later internment at Ravensbruck concentration camp.  There was the prison foreman who saw Corrie’s talent with small machinery and gave her meaningful work.  There was the doctor who falsely diagnosed Corrie with vision problems so she could remain with the weaker prisoners, including her beloved Betsie. There was the camp nurse who cared for Betsie in her dying days and arranged for Corrie to glimpse her sister one last time before she was buried.

Analysis:  This book is not easy to read.  There are troubling scenes, scenes played out in full-color in the movie of the same name released in 1975.  It would be hard to dream up a time worse than Nazi-occupied Europe.  But adults and older children reading this book will learn that during this war, many kept their humanity.  Times like these may come again. In The Hiding Place, readers see that it is possible to face starvation, cruelty, fear and loss and still help others.

The unassuming Corrie would go on to speak worldwide about her experiences and the source of her strength, her Christian faith. This faith told her and her sister to love all, even their enemies.  They spread this message to the broken, hopeless women imprisoned alongside them.  Even readers who aren’t Christian will be touched by ten Boom’s description of their nightly prayer sessions held in the camp barracks underneath a “wan, yellow light bulb.

The book’s title refers to the refuge the ten Booms provided to the Jews and to the Lord as refuge as mentioned in the psalms. 

“They were services like no others, these times in Barracks 28.  A single meeting night might include a recital of the Magnificat in Latin by a group of Roman Catholics, a whispered hymn by some Lutherans, and a sotto-voce chant by Eastern Orthodox women…At last, either Betsie or I would open the Bible.  Because only the Hollanders could understand the Dutch text we would translate aloud in German.  And then we would hear the life-giving words passed back along the aisles in French, Polish, Russian, Czech, back into Dutch.  They were little previews of heaven, these evenings beneath the light bulb.”