Maria Sibylla Merian: Woman of Science, Art, and Courage

Lynn: In the author’s note of her first biography, Joyce Sidman recalls her first encounter with Maria Merian’s work in the Minneapolis Museum of Art when she saw prints of her intricate depictions of natural life.  Like most of us, Sidman knew little about Merian.

“In many ways, Maria was an enigma. She rarely wrote about anything but caterpillars. . .”

An unexpected gift of caterpillar pupae and the discovery of a translation of Maria’s notes from Suriname propelled Sidman to tell Merian’s story.  The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science (2018), offers young readers a chance to learn about this extraordinary woman.

the Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian's Art Changed Science by Joyce SidmanIt is fitting that Sidman met Merian in an art museum, as art was a major focus of Merian’s life. Maria’s father and stepfather were successful engravers and artists who taught her to draw and paint at a young age. She eventually became involved in the family business, mixing paints, creating lovely designs, learning to choose materials, etch, and eventually to create her own books.

Artist, businesswoman, wife, mother—these roles would keep most people occupied, but Merian had an overriding passion for the insect world. A true scientist, careful observer, and meticulous researcher, Merian was not dissuaded from studying insects despite living in a time when women were seldom educated and it was actually dangerous for a woman to display too much intellectual interest, especially in “noxious animals.”

In the mid 1600’s, insects were considered pests, and little was understood about their life cycles. Most believed they arose from spontaneous generation, and few people, if any, made the connection between butterflies and caterpillars. Merian figured it out by raising caterpillars, watching them turn into butterflies, and noticing they laid eggs. She also discovered the dependence of insects on particular plants. Often recognized as the first ecologist, Merian also drew beautifully.

I am in awe of this woman who did such ground-breaking work in such restrictive times and managed, somehow, to go her own way. Sidman does an outstanding job of bringing Merian’s story to a young audience, providing the historical background as well as the science necessary to fully appreciate her importance. I’ve rarely seen a more beautiful book.


Cindy: Beautiful isn’t the half of it. Sidman includes Merian’s paintings, sketches, and primary-source entries from the observation journals that she kept throughout her life. The book is arranged in chapters that follow the metamorphosis of the “summer birds” (butterflies) Maria studied but uses them as metaphors for the stages of her own life from a young girl who took an interest in the natural world to a renowned woman scientist and artist. Chapter 1: Egg starts with her spring birth into a family of printers and engravers. Chapter 6: Fourth Instar relates her marriage to another artist and her own evolving work. And Chapter 11: Flight features her scientific sailing journey to Surinam. Yes, this 17th-century woman traveled—by ship, in her 50s, with her grown daughter, unescorted by a male—to study insects in Surinam! It nearly cost Merian her life, but she persisted.

Sidman opens each chapter with a poem and a photograph of the caterpillars she raised while researching and writing the book. The book also contains insets of information about the world in which Merian lived, with headings like “Science before Photography” and “Curiosity Cabinets: The First Museums.”  Truly, the writing, book design, and visual elements are beyond even what we have come to expect from Sidman. This biography is not to be missed.

While Lynn and I were at ALA Midwinter, we were surprised to see another Merian biography in the exhibit hall! Maria Sibylla Merian: Artist, Scientist, Adventurer (2018) by Sarah B. Pomeroy and Jeyaraney Kathirithamby is another gorgeous treatment for a slightly older audience—although honestly, both books have crossover appeal for adults. One of the illustrations in this book (p. 88) mentions that Maria’s “Green Iguana” painting was adapted for a Google Doodle to celebrate her 366th birthday on April 2, 2013. The doodler’s description shows an appreciation of Merian’s fine art in addition to her scientific study. Hey Lynn—did you realize that you and Merian share a birthday? No wonder you like to raise butterflies with your grandsons!

Young scientists who want to know more can read about Merian in two titles with starred Booklist reviews: Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science (2016), a verse collective biography by Jeannine Atkins, and the picture book biography Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian (2010) by Margarita Engle.

About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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