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.
Post Format: Q&A
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.
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.
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.