Women’s History Month Kid Lit Review of “The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science” by Joyce Sidman

As Newbery Honor-winning author Joyce Sidman explains, Maria Merian, born in 1647, loved to draw bugs from the time she was a young girl. But just drawing them wasn’t enough; she wanted to understand them as well:

“With no formal training or university education, Maria Merian took on the role of artist, adventurer, and scientist in seventeenth-century Europe – a time when women were rarely allowed responsibilities outside the home, and unusual interests led to accusations of witchcraft.”

But as Sidman notes:

“Her intrepid fieldwork and careful observation helped uncover the truth about metamorphosis and changed the course of science forever.”

This beautiful book about Maria and her accomplishments begins with an insect glossary – such a great idea to put a glossary in the front! It is helpful to know at the outset, for example, the differences between moths and butterflies.

The illustrations in this book are lovely. Some are drawings and paintings (many of which are reproductions of those made by Maria Merian herself), and some are stylized excerpts from Maria’s writings, but there are also many contemporary color photographs.

There are informational pictures with captions as well, like one demonstrating the parts of a copper engraver’s workshop, similar to that owned by Maria’s father.

When Maria’s father died, her mother eventually remarried, this time to a different type of artist. Jacob Marrel specialized in still lifes, and Maria was happy to help him. The author reports:

“Her stepfather prized insects as models and sent Maria outside to capture them.”

At the time, most people believed insects came from “spontaneous generation.” This was Aristotle’s theory and no one questioned it.

Marrel taught Maria how to draw and paint, and soon she was so skillful that she was helping produce pictures for sale. But her curiosity over the nature of caterpillars, moths, and butterflies only intensified, and she began to do her own experiments to find out where they came from and how they developed.

Women in Maria’s time could not attend a university. They could not neglect their “duties” as a female in favor of intellectual pursuits. They also had a “duty” to marry (and indeed, that particular duty was necessary for financial reasons as well as societal ones). In time Maria married one of her stepfather’s apprentices. But in spite of having and raising children and doing housekeeping, she continued to paint and even published a book in 1675 featuring pictures of her flowers.

In 1679 she published a second book, this one including not only plants but images of specific caterpillars showing the preference of plant associated with each one.

Maria found it increasingly difficult to balance all the parts of her life. In 1685, she left her husband, took her daughters and widowed mother, and went to join a religious commune in the northern Netherlands, where her half brother already lived. After six years, finding the restrictions of the community too limiting, she took her daughters to Amsterdam. Because the Netherlands [outside of religious communes] had more progressive laws for women, Maria could open her own business there. She became successful, but her curiosity hadn’t abated. Now she wanted to know more than just about European species of insects. In 1699, Maria and her younger daughter left for Surinam. [Suriname, a small country on the northeastern coast of South America, was formerly known as Surinam when became a Dutch colony beginning in 1667.]

The author writes:

“Maria delighted in the diversity of insects in Surinam and carefully painted them all, from stinging caterpillars to tarantulas.”

But the climate made her ill, and after just short of two years, she and her daughter returned to Amsterdam. In 1705, she published a book with her findings, The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam.

The book was widely praised and even acknowledged by the Royal Society of London, the famed scientific society which would not admit women to its membership for another 250 years.

But Maria never really recovered from the tropical illness she contracted in Surinam and died at the age of sixty-nine in 1715.

The author writes:

“On the very day of her death, an agent of Tsar Peter the Great bought a collection of almost three hundred of her original watercolors to help found Russia’s first art museum.”

Moreover, the famous scientist Carl Linnaeus relied heavily on Maria’s discoveries for his own work.

But many men were offended by her presumption to conduct science, and insisted she had to have had help from a man. Moreover, they said, she was only self-taught, and therefore not a real “scientist.”

Today’s scientists, Sidman points out, “have rediscovered and acknowledged her work for what it is: amazingly beautiful, accurate portrayals of insect metamorphoses and ecosystems.”

The book concludes with an Author’s Note, a Timeline, and a Selected Bibliography. Recommended age range is Age 10 – 12 years.

Evaluation: This book is replete with historical side notes as well as gorgeous photographs and paintings of plants and insects. Even aside from the inspirational story of Maria Merian, the book has a great deal to recommend it in the categories of history, science, and art.

Note: Awards include the 2019 Sibert Medal Informational Book Award from the Association for Library Service to Children, and New York Public Library Top 10 Best Books of 2018.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018


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9 Responses to Women’s History Month Kid Lit Review of “The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science” by Joyce Sidman

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    I agree with you about the glossary being in the front – that would be helpful so many times. Merians sounds like a wonder – those illustrations are fabulous.

  2. jama says:

    Gorgeous book from start to finish.

  3. Jeane says:

    What a treasure- I never heard of her before and her paintings are beautiful. That’s a surinam toad in the third-to-last picture- the eggs are laid in the mother’s skin and then the young toads emerge from her back. It’s amazing, and she depicted that!

  4. Jeane says:

    I just happened to see a clip about them in an Attenborough documentary, is all 🙂

  5. Beth F says:

    Wasn’t this book great! So beautiful and a great story.

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