The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian's Art Changed Science

by Joyce Sidman

Hardcover, 2018

Call number



HMH Books for Young Readers (2018), Edition: Illustrated, 160 pages


"Newbery-Honor winning author Joyce Sidman explores the extraordinary life and scientific discoveries of Maria Merian, who discovered the truth about metamorphosis and documented the science behind the mystery in this visual biography that features many original paintings by Maria herself."--

User reviews

LibraryThing member DonnaMarieMerritt
After reading Jeannine Atkins's Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science, I was intrigued by the accomplishments of Maria Merian. I was thrilled to see that Joyce Sidman was writing an entire book on her. The result is a combination of art, science, and poetry—my favorite things. It's
Show More
well researched, readable, and interesting. Joyce includes her own photographs as well as original illustrations from Maria. Each chapter begins with a poem, aptly titled "Egg" and "Hatching" and "Molting" and such. (The entire book was wonderful, but those poems and photos are my favorite parts of the story.) In an age when the contributions of women were neither accepted nor recognized for their importance, Maria perseveres and leaves as her legacy much about the true order of insects, destroying long-held myths as she documents their origins. The glossary, author's note, timeline, quote sources, and bibliography make this a must for every classroom and library, K to 12.

"Patience is a beneficial little herb." ~Maria Merian
Show Less
LibraryThing member nbmars
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
Show More
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.
Show Less
LibraryThing member WellReadSoutherner
What an amazing book! I learned so much about things that I never really much had an interest in……….bugs, caterpillars, and butterflies. Of course, I like butterflies. Who doesn’t? But to say I’m interested in entomology would be a stretch. But that is what is so great about this book.
Show More
You don’t have to be interested in entomology to learn what a wonderful woman in history Maria Merian was.

I stumbled across this book in my library as I was cutting through the juvenile section to go to another section. I only saw the spine of the book which caught my eye. As you can see from my main photo at the top the hardcover is designed to look like a brown leather book with gold embossing. There is an actual dust jacket to the book that is beautiful as well but I didn’t know that until I looked it up on to put the link above. My library had removed the dust jacket. I’m definitely ordering the book to add to my collection of kids books.

One of the most fascinating gems of this book to me is the fact that she was such a pioneer in natural history/science and science artistry. Women during her time were not supposed to have professions. She also traveled from her native Germany where she was born in the mid-1600s to Suriname (South America). If you are familiar with naturalists in history then you would be interested to know that Mark Catesby and John James Audobon were inspired by her.

Although this book is categorized for grades 5-7 and ages 10-12 years it is definitely a book that an adult can read as it is in no way too juvenile. I had never heard of her before so the entire book was fascinating. But the most beautiful thing to me is the actual artistry of the book and its graphic design. From the photography taken by the author to the fonts used to the historical insets and Maria’s watercolor images placed throughout the book, it is stunning from cover to cover. Well crafted and well written it makes me want to learn more about Maria!
Show Less


0544717139 / 9780544717138



Similar in this library

Page: 1.0916 seconds