Oh, here's a picture book that was just WAITING to be written. Maria Sibylla Merian, 1647-1717, was a scientific illustrator who grew up in Germany but did her most famous work in Suriname.
Look at those dates. Then think, "Suriname?" Yes my skeptical friend. In 1693, at the age of 52, Maria Merian went to South America with her sister to draw animals. Just to give some context - what else happened in 1693? Well, Louis the XIV was king. The Amish split from the Anabaptists that year. The last dodo died. And two middle-aged German women hiked up their skirts and went to South America.
I first learned about Maria Sibylla when I worked in the library at the natural history museum in New York. "We" owned a few giant beautiful volumes of her work, published around 1705, and it is one of my most cherished professional memories that I got to handle those books. My first reaction upon seeing her work was... "Hmmm, what kind of anti-malaria medication was Ms. Merian taking?" Because, of all the amazing scientific illustration I was learning about on that job, Maria Sibylla's insects and larvae and flora were without a doubt THA TRIPPIEST.
While the flat affect of some of the flora may have been a holdover from older traditions of depicting plants, I came to learn that any overemphasizing of markings or morphology that she did was probably meant to assist in identification. Scientific illustration maintains its place in our photographic world precisely because important details can be rendered accurately but also with emphasis. Think of the drawings in Cook's Illustrated magazine. If you want to learn how to truss a turkey, those illustrations are a lot easier to follow than photographs or even a video.
Now, to review this new little book. Margarita Engle writes the first-person story of a girl who, through patient observation, disproved the prevailing theory of insect generation - a theory that had been around since Aristotle. Maria Sibylla caught caterpillars, fed them, and watched them metamorphose into butterflies. She painted their pictures and recorded their habits and details of their life cycles. She looks forward to being a grown-up, when she can travel to far-off lands and publish her observations in big books.
This one? Is not a big book. This one is short and sweet. It's a fine book to share with a kid or group of kids as young as kindergarten, especially this time of year, when many classrooms are playing host to at least a few caterpillars in a big jar. Books that extol the virtues of observation are always welcome on my shelf, and this one works in just a tiny bit of girl power too.
Julie Paschkis, of course, is the perfect illustrator for this book - perhaps the only one who could be entrusted with Maria Sibylla's work. I have always thought that Ms. Paschkis's work is somewhat influenced by illuminated manuscript style, a style that Maria Sybilla would have been exposed to from a tender age. That shallow picture plane and declarative foliage, the pressed effect and decorative elements. Ms. Paschkis's bold lines and glowing colors bear a strong family resemblance, and she has faithfully interpreted many of the freaky caterpillars and fantastic animals found in Maria Sibylla's original books.
If you ever get a chance to see Maria Sibylla Merian's work in person, please do so. Even online, it's pretty jaw-dropping. But pick up this book too. It is beautifully executed and tells the story of the extraordinary girl who became an extraordinarily daring and committed natural scientist.