Book Review: The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science, by Joyce Sidman

Big thank you to Jennifer Johnson, our School Age Program Coordinator, for this review!

A caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a moth or butterfly is an awe-inspiring transformation. Maria Merian was fascinated by this process, but growing up in mid-17th century Europe made it hard for her to pursue her interest. Not only were women discouraged and forbidden from artistic and academic pursuits, they could be accused of witchcraft if they had interests that society deemed inappropriate.

After the death of Maria’s father, her mother married an artist, Jacob Marrel, who specialized in botanical still-life paintings. Maria was surrounded by flowers and plants, and consequently, the critters that inhabited them. Her stepfather recognized her artistic talent and enthusiasm early on and passed his knowledge of and passion for painting on to Maria. Despite society’s expectations, Maria pursued observing, documenting, and painting insects with the precision and curiosity of a scientist and an artist. Her work was well-received and helped dispel the theory of insects’ spontaneous generation, the idea that insects come directly from the ground or are born out of rotting matter. She was the first to document the life cycle of hundreds of insects, including many species that are now extinct. Her art influenced later naturalists, such as John James Audubon, and many scholars today praise her work for its accuracy and attention to detail.

I had never heard of Maria Merian before picking up this title. It’s possible that I may have seen some of her paintings in books, but never paid attention to whom they were attributed. After reading about her passion, determination, and pioneering viewpoints on the interconnectedness of natural life, I will definitely be seeking more information about her.

Middle-school children interested in art, history, and entomology will love this non-fiction book. The book highlights Maria’s artistic journey by drawing parallels between it and the stages of a caterpillar’s life. Her paintings flutter around the text, and there are helpful asides and illustrated maps that give context for the time period. Quotes from Maria’s own writings are peppered throughout and provide glimpses of her personality.

Overall, this was an informative and fascinating title that explores the work of a lesser known citizen-scientist and highlights the undeniable contributions she made to our understanding of the natural world. If you or your children are looking for non-fiction that celebrates passionate, intelligent women or want a quick read about someone new, this title is for you!

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