Young Maria Merian had a passion for butterflies and moths that led to a lifelong, convention-defining career of natural-history illustration.
When the young artist was growing up in 17th-century Germany, butterflies and moths were thought to arise through spontaneous generation and women interested in insects might be seen as witches. Still, Maria not only painted the insects she saw around her, she brought home silkworms and studied them, watching their metamorphosis and painting what she saw, including their favorite plants and flowers. Continuing to observe and paint from nature in her adult life, she also taught and published books of her illustrations, raised a family, and traveled as far as Suriname to explore the natural world. In contrast to Margarita Engle and Julie Paschkis’ Summer Birds (2010), in which a first-person narrative captures Maria’s childhood voice and joy in the natural world and the illustrations demonstrate the culture’s changing approach to nature, Marsh and Vanzo present a more distant, staid story for young readers. Vanzo’s illustrations, drawn with pencil and digitally colored, are modestly realistic, more so for the insects than humans (all white, including in Suriname). Sadly, the monarch butterflies that intrigue freckle-faced Maria in these images don’t exist in Germany. Even the title is unfortunate: Butterflies and moths are not bugs. An author’s note provides further information about this early naturalist. A few of the artist’s original illustrations are included and sourced, but no sources are given for other information.
Let this one fly away. (Picture book/biography. 4-7)