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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Finalist: THE GIRL WHO DREW BUTTERFLIES by Joyce Sidman

Girl ButterfliesMaria Merian was born in the mid 1600s in Germany when women weren’t allowed in universities or professions (let alone allowed to paint with oils) and people still believed Aristotle’s theory of “spontaneous generation.” Insects supposedly sprung from mud or dead animals, and studying such “noxious animals” was seen as abnormal and ungodly and sometimes the provenance of witches.

Sidman takes us on Maria Merian’s fascinating journey, her transformation from a young girl helping in the family business to a published author of gorgeous books of scientific discovery.

Sidman organizes the book beautifully and information is easily accessible for the young reader. Presenting the glossary in the front of the book rather than the back makes the insect development terms clear and sets the reader up to comprehend the layout of the book. Each chapter is named for a stage in insect development, mirroring that stage in Meriam’s life. A poem about that stage introduces the chapter.

Up, up, up I clamber, searching for secrets, full to bursting, not even noticing I have outgrown my own skin again (p 28)

Here Sidman describes one of the instars of a caterpillar, elegantly linking it to Merian’s experience of continually outgrowing her own caterpillar skin, the constraints that society has put on women at that time. The poems guide the reader to more fully understand Merian’s metamorphosis from the “egg” of her birth and childhood through the “eclosure” from married woman to aspiring business woman to the laying of her own eggs—her legacy and the transformation of scientific discovery.

Sidman’s research was extensive, from observing her own caterpillars’ development (the insect photos in the book are mostly her own) to the use of primary sources–her bachelor’s degree in German allowed her to work from Meriam’s own notes.

Her historical sections on such topics as “Witch Hunts: The Dangers of Being Different” and “Curiosity Cabinets: The First Museums” gives the reader more background information and historical context.

Her expertise as a poet permeates the book. The alliteration in the forward (The Girl in the Garden) and afterward (The Woman in Her World) show us that her poet’s hand has touched even the small details.

Sidman does a masterful job at conveying the wonder of discovery. Her book continues Meriam’s legacy of fascination with the natural world and its cycles. May this book bring this excitement to many young readers!

Introduction by Susan N.

Readers are now invited to discuss this book, starting by focusing on positive aspects. Later today we will open up the discussion to include areas where the book may be lacking, along with the strong points.

Roxanne Hsu Feldman About Roxanne Hsu Feldman

Roxanne Hsu Feldman is the Middle School (4th to 8th grade) Librarian at the Dalton School in New York City. She served on the 2002 and 2013 Newbery Committees. Roxanne was also a member of 2008-2009 Notable Books for Children, 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults, and the 2017 Odyssey Award Committees. In 2016 Roxanne was one of the three judges for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. You can reach her at at


  1. Deborah Ford says:

    It’s surprising that an author so known for her poetry delivers a book almost completely in prose. Yet, as you say Susan, each chapter begins with a poem. One of my personal favorites is on page 41:

    “The rain comes, and the blazing sun. I must find a safe place to become who I was meant to be.”

    That is exactly who Maria Merian was. Like the caterpillars she studied and painted, she too, was looking for a safe place to become. It’s ironic how she was so much like the insects she researched. Sidman takes us on a journey of discovery. Who is this girl? Why would she take such risks? How did she fight the norm and successfully publish–receiving recognition in her lifetime?

    I love the journal entries that fill in the gaps and verify the content. As many readers may not have background knowledge, the intermittent chapters also fill in the gaps. It also helps us with pacing. Readers pause in Maria’s journey before catching up to her next adventure.

    Readers not only get to know the artist and scientist, they also learn about customs, religion, and the role of women in the time period. This strong nonfiction contender includes a timeline which summarizes the storyline. In Sidman’s conclusion, however, she leaves us with questions: Why did she “insist on painting her insects with the plants they favored? Why was she so obsessively thorough in her documentation?” [pg 120] Maybe she could see a bigger picture. Maybe she was just good at what she loved so much. With the obvious research from Sidman so eloquently revealed, readers have an opportunity to ponder these things with more facts to support their conclusions, just as Maria questioned the evolution of the mud puddle worms. Perhaps Maria’s research and success will inspire others to transform as well.

  2. Amanda Snow says:

    Such a beautiful package. The illustrations call for close examination and the journal entries are a lovely addition. I’ve handed this to so many patrons (kids and adults!) with only positive results.

  3. What this book did so well is depict the evolution of scientific discovery, up against the gender limitation of the time. Giving context of commonly held beliefs will help young readers fully understand Merian’s contributions.

    • Mary Zdrojewski says:

      I agree. I think the addition of “here’s what people thought about this scientific concept at that time” sentences sprinkled throughout the book were very helpful in putting the book in context without dragging down the narrative.

  4. I never would have read this book had it not been for this committee, and I’m beyond grateful that it was on our reading list.

    This book is beautiful in nearly every sense of the word. I lost count of the number of times I turned to my husband and said, “Did you know…?” or “Listen to this!” while reading. After reading this book, I’m gobsmacked that Merian isn’t more well known. I certainly had never heard of her.

    Sidman’s poetry background shines through on nearly every page: her words are carefully chosen and graceful, managing to both capture the imagination and provide information. The scientific detail is carefully explained, and that each chapter is modeled after a butterfly’s development was ingenious.

    Other commenters have written about the strengths of this book, and I agree with them all. It’s a phenomenal and lovely book.

    • I also would not have picked up this book were it not for this group and I’m so glad it was on the list! Such a phenomenal way to tell a story of a woman so deserving of recognition.

    • I agree! This wasn’t on my radar at all. Such a wonderful story about someone I’d never heard of.

      • Happy to say that it was completely on my radar, for I am an entomology nerd! Have been so thrilled to the response to it every time I share it with someone. It’s so gorgeously done– and such a gripping life story!

  5. The information is straightforward and easy to follow, making it a good choice for young readers. I wish a little more time had been spent on why the subtitle is why the art “changed science” as it was clear that while it wasn’t popular she wasn’t the first person to put forward the theory of metamorphosis, and it seemed that she was part of a larger cultural movement towards observational science and meticulous research.

    As many others have pointed out the poems were a nice touch and helped illuminate aspects of her life.

    A tiny bit off-topic, but oddly enough there was another biography of Maria Sibylla Merian for this age group published the week before this one. I haven’t gotten my hands on it yet, but it’s interesting that the real committee potentially could make direct comparison.

  6. Cherylynn5691 says:

    I was impressed with not just the biographical information, but the sheer amount of information about caterpillars, moths and butterflies that was included. The illustrations in this book and the design were very well done in this case. Easy to read and primary source information from her journal made this stand out in the few nonfiction books I read this year.

  7. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    We’ve had some excellent comment about the many strengths THE GIRL WHO DREW BUTTERFLIES. Now we’ll open up discussion to include questions and concerns, though as usual, positive points are still welcome as well.

  8. Sarahbtlibrarian says:

    Agreed with all the thoughts shared so far on the beauty and packaging of this book. The extra historical context is so great for young readers and it’s nice to see a book that really shows respect for young nonfiction readers without talking down to them.

    Did anyone else notice that Sidman does a lot of speculating? This isn’t uncommon but there were times it pulled me out of the story. The biggest example I have of this is on page 58 when talking about Maria’s marriage “Did you Johann resent Maira’s passion for insects? Did he chafe at the amount of time, space, and effort she devoted to her study? Did he mistreat her?”

    This occurred enough throughout that it pulled me out of my enjoyment of an otherwise great book. It seemed like there was so much speculation at times I had a hard time really delving into what was fact and what was mere speculation. Maybe this was just me, as I do sometimes struggle to read nonfiction anyway, but I was wondering if anyone else noticed this.

    • Sarah, I know what you mean. I think this is a frustration I have overall with nonfiction. There isn’t always enough information to make conclusive statements and author go about filling the gaps in various ways. I’m aware when a song and dance is going on and don’t always trust the speculation. I remember questioning quite a bit while reading this.

      • Sarahbtlibrarian says:

        This exactly! There was so much here I found myself second guessing some of the speculation as well. Good to know I wasn’t alone in this.

      • Brenda Martin says:

        Thank you for mentioning this speculation business. A book that many people loved to bits a few years back was Candace Fleming’s THE FAMILY ROMANOV, which I did like for the most part, aside from what I considered to be excessive speculation. As others have stated, it may simply be a technique of nonfiction authors that some readers have more problem with than others do.

    • Courtney Hague says:

      I completely agree with you, Sarah. I understand why nonfiction authors choose to speculate like this (for narrative flow and character development) but I felt like Sidman may have employed too much of it. I think the example you give is a good one. She is often trying to impose modern sensibilities on this story when that isn’t really necessary. I also wish she had made it more clear what was speculation and what was not in the way that THE FAITHFUL SPY did by employing an asterisk after actual quotations.

      • Courtney, I’m so glad you make that comparison. I don’t recall ever seeing a technique like Hendrix’s where the author directs the reader’s attention to that which is direct rather than speculation. It never occurred to me that perhaps biographers should use this technique.

        I love biographies and nonfiction, and generally don’t get hung up on that which is speculation – especially when it’s in a biography. My reasoning is this: does anyone (or, better yet, can anyone) know all there is to know about a person – especially what they think? We speculate about people and their motives all day (and we ourselves are speculated about). If anything, a biographer’s speculations are natural: it’s human nature to ask questions about the motives of others. We can never know the absolute facts of a person’s internal landscape. I have a hard time knocking a biographer for this, though now that I’ve seen Hendrix’s approach, I might change my tune.

      • Just to put the “speculation” technique in to a slightly more historical context: in the field of children’s literature/award consideration, the attention on sourcing materials and on keeping all information verifiable has been emphasized for a while, even if there are divergent opinions.
        This means that when an author makes a statement, unless it is totally source-able, the author has to indicate with certain words, such as, “must have,” “could possibly,” etc. And in order to make a more lively telling, such conjectures have to be present in nonfiction and biographies to avoid being accused of fabricating details.

        There is a debate on Heavy Medal over BOMB (which went on to be honored by the Newbery) here:

        I personally think Sidman did not over do the speculation and appreciate her presentation and organization of all the facts to tell a cohesive story with plenty of historical context for readers (of all ages.)

    • Does it matter that the intended audience is children? Meaning, is this more common in nonfiction for kids because the author is trying to connect the dots for their readers? Or does this make it less distinguished? Like, showing a lack of trust in the audience to come to conclusions on their own. I’m asking earnestly. Because some nonfiction authors do it well. I’m thinking of moments in Undefeated by Sheinkin that remind me of this but didn’t seem to bother me (I know, that’s not a 2018 title, but my question isn’t really a 2018 question.)

      I suppose if one is speculating too much, it may show a weakness in their actual research and their organization of it…

  9. This really was a beautiful biography. I thought Sidman’s poetry before each chapter was a nice touch. I also really liked how Sidman compared the stages of Merian’s life and career to the different stages of development of the creatures she was studying. I thought this structure was rather brilliant. This book was actually one that received a vote from me through Heavy Medal’s voting rounds.

  10. It included a lot of interesting information and I thought it was clever to divide it into the life cycle stages, although I’m not sure that actually added anything (or totally made sense in terms of what it corresponded to). But I got a little bored. Maybe this is just me and this type of nonfiction. I wanted more narrative, but I think that just wasn’t possible because they don’t actually know that much about her personally. So that’s probably not really a fair complaint. And she certainly made an effort to fill in the holes with all of the supposing.

    • I agree that the life cycles didn’t add much, although maybe on a third or fourth read I will find the connection. It felt like an attempt to get a little more information in the book, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Were they discoveries that Merian herself found?

  11. Samuel leopold says:

    Not so sure it will win a Newbery…. but it has won a place in the hearts of my middle school scientists in training.

  12. Jean Holmblad says:

    Yes! Newbery please! I adore this book; I was so angry when it ended! The whole book is just one delicious piece of non-fiction cake!

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