Three girls. Three time periods. Three scientific fields. Jeannine Atkins’ new novel, Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science, covers the girlhoods of Maria Merian, a naturalist and scientific illustrator, born in Germany in 1647; Mary Anning, a paleontologist born in England in 1799; and Maria Mitchell, an astronomer born in Massachusetts in 1818. Atkins tells their remarkable stories and captures their brilliant minds in this beautifully-crafted novel in free verse, one the Kirkus review calls “inspirational and informative”.
I chatted via email with Atkins to ask about the origins of this book and how she pulled together her research to tell the stories of these groundbreaking women.
Jules: Hi, Jeannine! I really like your new book. How long have you been working on this? Did you always know it'd be the story of these three amazing women, or did it evolve over time into that?
Jeannine: Hi! I wanted to write about girls who loved science and lived before the twentieth century, but I read pretty widely until I noticed the thread that these three all had supportive fathers and became committed to their work when they were about thirteen. I read about their lives, times, and scientific fields for about a year and wrote for another two years, with some overlapping.
Jules: I love the line (in Mary Anning’s story), “Fury is a microscope,” which is right after her own brother gets credited for work she’d done. In all your research and the writing of this book, did you think about any parallels between these girls’ lives and the lives of girls today? In some ways women have made great strides; in other ways, not.
Jeannine: I long ago stopped thinking of progress as a straight line. In some ways science was more open to women before the twentieth century, when it had a less practical bent and was seen as a way to worship God’s world. Of course, women were still excluded from professions, by law more than the sorts of bullying we sadly see now, but loving parents fostered the talents of daughters even when they weren’t sure that they could pursue cherished work beyond the home.
Jules: Yes, that was striking to see here – that, as you already noted, the fathers for each were supportive.
Tell me about your decision to write this in free verse.
Jeannine: These three women became well- known in their time, but much of their stories have been lost to us. Lack of material can stymie a biographer, but for a poet, gaps are an invitation to wonder. Verse let me draw from research on historical settings to carefully imagine scenes, then pare it all down, which feels true to me.
Jules: Can you talk about what that research was like? Did you learn anything that surprised you?
Jeannine: Kim Todd’s book Chrysalis gave me a great account of Maria Sibylla Merian’s accomplishments, but I wanted to fill in sensory details from her daily life. I read about food, clothing, and techniques used by other artists working around the same time, such as Rembrandt, to understand how Maria Merian might have ground and mixed pigments and prepared canvasses. Her uncle managed a silk mill, so besides watching moths emerge from cocoons on YouTube, I read books about how silkworms were raised and their silk collected in early factories.
Astronomer Maria Mitchell was famous enough in her day so that one of her sisters made sure her letters and diaries were saved. Phebe published these with a commentary, but I looked to memoirs of others who lived in nineteenth century Nantucket to learn more about the women who ran shops or farms while men were away whaling, and what the docks and shops smelled and looked like. These kinds of facts make me feel as if I knew the women more and also provided material for metaphors – a spark between two things that always surprises!
Other happy revelations often have to do with the company these scientists kept. I loved learning that Maria Mitchell not only worked as a librarian at the Nantucket Atheneum, but that her mother was said
to have read every book on the island.
Jules: I have to say, since you brought up metaphors: Many of your metaphors in this book made me put the book down momentarily and sort of go, aah. I like good writing that makes me stop and savor the way a sentence was constructed.
I like when you write (in the book’s first section, though I think it applies to all the women in this book), “her art is science, which wants questions as much as answers.” I like that emphasis on questions, especially when people typically demand so many answers from science. And it reminds me of the connections between science and poetry. (It makes me think of Rilke writing “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.”)
Jeannine: Thank you for the sigh and for Rilke!
I was taught science as if it were all over and understood, only as an adult, that, like poets, many scientists use questions as a guide and find joy exploring what can’t ever be known for certain. Children can look at stones, butterflies, or stars and be given names and information, but I hope their wondering is honored, too.
Jules: “There’s more in the earth than anyone knows. / We’ll find wonders.” One of my favorite lines.
I have to ask: Were you wowed by the cover art for your book? I think it’s quite beautiful and pulls all three threads together well.
Jeannine: Yes, that cover took my breath away!
Jules: What’s next on your plate?
Jeannine: It's so nice to be asked that, especially when I have an answer.
Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis, also in verse, is coming out from Atheneum in January. And I’m finishing a novel for middle readers with a little bit of magic.
Jules: Oh, right! An early copy of Stone Mirrors is on its way to me from your publisher. I had hoped I'd have that read and could ask more about it, but it's not here yet. I look forward to reading it.
Well, I feel like I could chat all day but will wrap it up now. Thanks for chatting with me, Jeannine. And thanks for this book about three remarkable women. It's especially cheering to read right now.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.