"Summer Birds" was a medieval name for the mysterious butterflies and moths that appeared suddenly during warm weather and vanished in the fall.
Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian
by Margarita Engle
pictures by Julie Paschkis
With some of the most beautiful and interesting illustrations I have ever seen, the captivating story of naturalist and scientific illustrator, Maria Merian, comes to life in this first children's book by Margarita Engle.
The voice of thirteen-year-old Maria simply and poetically tells of how she disagrees with the ancient belief that butterflies are a product of the spontaneous generation of rotting mud, rather than the transformation of caterpillars.
During the medieval time in which she lives, to catch insects and study them would lead to being accused of witchcraft. (Historical notes at the end of the book expand on this statement; the fear was that if animals could "shape shift" through the natural process of metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly or tadpole to frog, then mightn't it be possible that people could be transformed into werewolves and other frightening creatures?) But Maria knows her summer birds are harmless, and captures them to watch...
And when she sees the caterpillars born of eggs from the summer birds, watches them grow and spin cocoons, she is witness to the beautiful transformation that occurs when they spread their wet wings to dry and prepare for flight. She knows the theory of insects born from mud is wrong, for
I have seen their whole life cycle with my own eyes.
Soon, she begins to examine some tadpoles she keeps in a jar of water- observing that they, too, are not born from mud. And when the tadpoles finally turn into frogs, she declares that someday she will put her paintings in a book so that everyone will know the truth about how some small animals change their forms. It is her great hope that the people of her time will stop viewing small animals as evil, and will one day experience the joy of witnessing the wingless caterpillar turn into a summer bird.
The illustrations are absolutely breathtaking, with astonishing attention to detail; some of the finest hairs on a caterpiller can be seen, and the designs on butterfly wings have so much depth you almost feel as if you could touch them yourself! Yet another book where we can spend many long moments just taking in every aspect of the vivid pictures on a page...
The intriguing story of Maria Merian could not be told without the illustrations, nor could the pictures stand without the story behind them. Our favorite kind of book!
(For another story that evokes much conversation about learning and the research it involves and not just rolling our eyes at ancient beliefs but trying to understand the why behind some nearly-impossible-to-actually-prove-or-disprove-at-the-time theories (such as flat earth or sun revolving around the earth or insects springing up magically from the mud), we have recently thoroughly enjoyed Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei.)
*update: Read this post by a brilliant mama, and decide for yourselves whether spontaneous generation is possible! She'll walk you through finding your caterpillar, creating a home, and (perhaps the most important aspect of all) observing!
Do you have a children's book review you would like to share? Oh, please join us- add your link below!