GUEST POSTS: NSTA Linking Literacy, NSTA National Convention, Boston, MA. 9 am – 3 pm, April 4, 2020.
The National Science Teacher’s Association has invited authors of Outstanding Science Trade Books and Best Stem Books to discuss literacy and children’s books at a special Literacy Event. 14 of these authors have contributed guest posts to run from January 7 – April 2, 2020.
See the full author list and the date on which they’ll post at Linking Literacy 2020.
When I committed to telling the story of Maria Sybilla Merian’s remarkable contribution to the understanding of insect metamorphosis (The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science), I realized two things were crucial: I had to use both text and art to convey my message (as she did), and I had to follow in her footsteps by raising caterpillars myself.
As a writer/researcher working in the 21st century, I have access to the latest technology, including Google searches, digitized academic papers, and actual videos of butterflies sliding out of their pupae. Maria, who lived from 1647-1717, had none of this. She had no database to work from, aside from a few difficult-to-find volumes by other insect enthusiasts. She had no GoPro to film the continuous development of her caterpillars, which were hidden away in boxes in her kitchen. Insect study was a risky sideline for her at first. Her main source of income was her art, and—as a middle-class woman of her time—she was not supposed to be dabbling in any sort of science, much less that of “evil vermin.” She had to gather her caterpillars discreetly, she had to actually watch them to learn about them, and, in addition to all this, she had to quickly paint what she saw to document her research.
She had her own keen power of observation, and she had her paints. That was it.
I can’t paint, but I have a camera. And I have a pair of eyes. So, in the midst of all my research—museums visited, books read, endless facts chased down—I ordered a little cupful of Painted Lady caterpillars online, installed them in my porch, and began to watch them. Oh my gosh, how they consumed me! I brought them leaves. I posed them on sticks to photograph them. I talked to them. I asked them to please wait until I was in the room to perform their miraculous transformations (they rarely did).
I missed a few crucial moments, but I did have an exciting moment of discovery one day. A newly emerged butterfly, expanding its rumpled wings, began to curl and uncurl its proboscis (straw-like tongue). But . . . the proboscis was forked, like a snake’s! What??? I rushed to the internet to make sense of what I was seeing, and learned that many butterflies need to “zip up” their probosces upon emerging, in order to use them to suck nectar. What a thrill to have made this discovery first-hand! Even more thrilling, I later found evidence in Maria’s art that she’d observed this behavior this as well.
What I learned was that in the end, some of the best science comes from two things: your own eyes, and a way to document what you see so you can share it with others. This was Maria’s method, and it became mine as well. I watched, and then I used photographs, prose, and even poetry to convey the wonder of what I’d seen. In the process, I developed a passion for insects that changed my understanding of the natural world.
It’s my hope that a book like The Girl Who Drew Butterflies will inspire other young naturalists to find interesting things to watch—and to record their discoveries in any way they choose. If we can instill a passion for first-hand observation (and subsequent story-telling) in our students and readers, we will have fostered a generation that both sees and treasures the natural world.
Joyce Sidman’s books have won a Newbery Honor (Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night) and two Caldecott Honors, and in2013, she received the NCTE Award for Excellence in Children’s Poetry for her body of work. Her latest book, The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science, recently received the Robert F. Sibert Medal from the American Library Association. Joyce also teaches poetry in elementary schools through the COMPAS organization of St. Paul, MN.