Finding Wonders is a delightful novel-in-verse about three women who lived in previous centuries and who were interested in the natural world around them. During the time these women lived, people had very superstitious notions about the world in which they lived. Often women who showed any interest in what has become to be identified as science were considered strange at best and witches at worst. Atkins profiles three women: Maria Sibylla Merian, Mary Anning, and Maria Mitchell
In the first story, The Artist's Daughter, Maria Merian was the step-daughter of an artist and lived in Frankfurt, Germany her parents, two older brothers and sister and their apprentice Andreas. Her story begins in 1660. Thirteen-year-old Maria is fascinated by caterpillars who mysteriously change from worms into moths and butterflies. Maria's inquisitiveness is considered different by her family; Andreas warns her against touching the caterpillar and seventeen-year-old Sarah tells Maria she's too old to be crawling under gooseberry bushes and in the mud.
When she goes to visit her Uncle Hans in the silk mill, Maria questions him about where the silkworms come from. It is a common belief that they come out of the mud and that they cause terrible things to happen. Hans won't directly answer Maria but gives her a few silkworms to take home and tells her to make sure they have fresh mulberry leaves every day. Maria hides the silkworms in the attic and spends her time between chores observing the worms. She watches them eat, molt and spin a cocoon.
"Can watching what caterpillars become
show Maria where they come from?
How long must she wait
to see what will emerge?"
Maria's discovery opens her eyes to a world few understand.
The second story, Secrets in Stones is about Mary Anning who lived from 1799 to 1847 in Lyme Regis, England. Her story begins in 1809 when many discoveries are being made and the origin of life on Earth is being debated. Ten-year-old Mary and her father scour the sea cliffs near their home for the strange "curiosities" -
"stones with pictures of creatures or plants that seem
scratched by impossibly sharp needles or nails."
Mary's father sends her home as a rainstorms sweeps the coast, and returns hours later, badly injured from a fall when the cliff crumbles during the storm. As her family slips further into poverty due to her father's injuries, Mary begins scouring the cliffs for the curious stones to sell. After the death of her father and her baby brother, Mary and Joseph make an amazing find in the cliffs:
"A head with a pointed snout or beak is as long as her arm.
Scrambled, shuffled teeth make a jagged line.
Above the mouth is an eye, sun-shaped,
like those of fish or birds, with a patterned rim around."
It is a find that will change the mankind's ideas of Earth's history forever, opening a window to life in the distant past.
The third story, Many Stars, One Comet is about Maria Mitchell who lived in the 19th century. The story begins when Maria is twelve years old and her older brother Andrew leaves on a whaling ship. The Mitchells are Quakers who live an unassuming life, not partaking in some of the finer aspects of life such as frills on bonnets, music, parties or dancing. Maria's father has a telescope on the roof of their home, where he maps the stars. Maria has grown to love the stars and she spends evenings on the roof helping him with calculations. When her father mends chronometers, he teaches Maria how to repair them. When her father learns that the king of Denmark is offering money and a gold medal to anyone using a telescope to discover a new comet, Maria is intrigued. Her father tells her it is unlikely anyone in America will discover a comet mainly because telescopes are better in Europe and night falls there first. But Maria's persistence over the years pays off when she makes an amazing discovery.
Atkins has told the stories of three girls who grew into women scientists as a result of their determination to satisfy their curiosity about the world around them. In Finding Wonders, the author employs free verse which allows her to create an engaging account of these young girls as they explore the natural world. Atkins states in her note at the back, "I chose to write in verse because of the permission it gives me to fill in what disappeared." Atkins wanted to write about these specific women because "...While some facts have been passed along, many memories of these women have turned faint. History tends to capture moments of discovery, so we miss much of what came before and after, including common experiences that may bond us." While young women today might remember Marie Curie, Roberta Bondar and Rosalind Franklin, it's important to remember those who came before and to understand the obstacles they overcame.
Each of these young girls in Finding Wonders is encouraged to explore her world by her father. Maria Merian's uncle and her father encourage her to study and record her observations of the life cycle of the silkworm despite the superstitions of both her family members and society and the notion that such activities are not appropriate for young women. Mary Anning accompanies her father as he searches the cliffs for strange rocks which she later learns are called fossils, and Maria Mitchell is taught by her father how to use a telescope, to do important mathematical calculations, to set chronometers and he even provides her with her own workroom at home.
Each young girl must surmount obstacles either from their own families, circumstances or societal expectations. For example, Mary Anning isn't initially recognized as the one who finds the fossilized ichthyosaur but she persists in digging out this fossil and soon finds many more fossils including the first plesiosaur. Maria Mitchell works against the restrictions of her Quaker faith, while Maria Merian has to deal with the belief that a woman collecting insects and wading in ponds might be a witch.
Atkins free verse is beautiful and expressive. Atkins has Maria Mitchell describe her love of mathematics in a way that is realistic:
"She loves the elegance and economy of mathematics,
which can pry open the view of the heavens,
splinter ideas that have been held for thousands of years.
She's fond of formulas that mirror
nature's love of curving lines,
seen in seashells, plants that rise and bend back,
birds building nests, orbits of planets,
even truth, which spirals in and out of sight."
Atkins includes a detailed "A Note from the Author" at the back as well as a Selected Bibliography for further reading which young readers will want to check out. What would have greatly enhanced the stories in this fictionalized account is pencil drawings throughout. Finding Wonders' beautiful cover is only the first of many reasons why young readers should check out this book.
Finding Wonders by Jeannine Atkins
Toronto: Atheneum Books For Young Readers 2016