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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Summer Birds, written by Margarita Engle and illustrated by Julie Paschkis. Henry Holt, H B Fenn. 2010. $19.99 ages 5 and up

"I have to catch my insects
in secret.
Neighbors would accuse me
of witchcraft if they knew.
Everyone says insects are
evil, but I know my summer
birds are beautiful and harmless."

This is a beautifully imagined and boldly illustrated biography of Maria Merian. If that is not a familiar name to you it might be that she was a scientific illustrator, who was born in 1647 and died in 1717. I had not seen her work until I read this book. It led me to some new and enlightening information about a woman who made quite an impact with her observations in the 1600s.

Margarita Engle chooses to tell her story in first person and that will have a tremendous impact when you are sharing it with children. It gives the story presence for 21st century listeners and shows the focus that Maria had for the work she was doing. It is simply told, but quite brilliant. Maria explains how she knows something that other scientists and people of the time do not know. She knows that 'summer birds' are not evil; rather, she describes what she observes of them daily.

Maria gathers caterpillars, feeds them and watches them emerge as butterflies, so beautiful and endlessly fascinating that it defines her life's work. She records her observations meticulously in word and art, and dreams of a future that will include publication of her work and travel to learn more about the world. 

Julie Paschkis has created bold and luminous artwork that is faithful to the work that Maria did so long ago. The beautiful color will attract the attention of all readers and leave them awed by the beauty of the 'summer birds' that so intrigued Maria. I love the way the artist contrasts her pleasing, graceful butterflies on white and then juxtaposes it with the dark backgrounds of the medieval beliefs Maria is wanting to dispel. Awesome and so memorable!

I hope that reading this exceptional picture book biography will lead you to learn more about a woman far ahead of her time, and of her much honored and admired work.

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