Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Girl Who Named Pluto: The Story of Venetia Burney by Alice B. McGinty

Do you know how Pluto, that dwarf planet at the edge of our solar system came to be named? Incredibly it was an eleven-year-old girl named Venetia Burney who is credited with first suggesting the name of Pluto for a newly discovered planet in 1930. The Girl Who Named Pluto the story of Pluto and its naming.

In 1930, young Venetia Burney and her classmates are following her teacher "Out of the classroom, down the hallways, and out the door... counting their steps from the sun, a circle drawn on their classroom blackboard." It is an exercise their teacher, Miss Claxton has designed to impress upon the girls the huge distances between the sun and the various planets in the solar system. The last two known planets, Uranus and Neptune are too far away to walk the distances.

Later however, Venetia and her friends map out the entire distance from the Sun to Uranus in a nearby park. The last planet, Neptune is a whopping 2.79 billion miles from the sun. Venetia wonders just how large the solar system is. Her Grandfather Madan, tries to answer the questions she asks of him at breakfast every morning. Besides learning about the planets, Venetia is also studying Greek and Roman mythology. Her great-uncle Henry Madan was responsible for naming the two moons orbiting Mars after the god of war's two sons Phobos and Deimos.

Then one day Venetia's grandfather read about the discovery of a new planet by the Lowell Observatory. The planet which was located even farther from the sun than Neptune did not yet have a name. But Venetia, with her vivid imagination had just the name in mind...


Pluto is a mysterious planet in the Kuiper Belt that surrounds Neptune. Discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh, Pluto is now classified as a dwarf planet, about half the size of the Earth's Moon and is believed to be a remnant of the creation of our solar system. You can learn more about Pluto from the National Geographic's Pluto 101 webpage.

Venetia Burney used her love of Greek and Roman legends and her belief that a planet so far from the sun would be similar to the underworld whom the Roman god Pluto ruled. Her grandfather who was a librarian with many astronomer friends sent this suggestion to Herbert Hall Turner, a professor at Oxford, who then forwarded the suggestion to the Lowell Observatory. For Venetia Burney, it was thrilling to have her suggestion chosen. The name Pluto became official on May 24, 1930. In 2007 on the eve of her eighty-ninth birthday, Venetia was able to view Pluto for the first time through a telescope at the Science Observatory at Hertsmonceux, England. Venetia Burney passed away at the age of ninety in 2009. In 2015, the robotic spacecraft, New Horizons reached Pluto and photographed the dwarf planet. A large crater on the planet was named after Burney.

McGinty's picture book provides readers with all the details of this interesting part of Pluto's history with a straightforward telling. The author includes a note at the back with more detail about Venetia Burney's life. Interestingly, Venetia grew up to be an accountant and married Maxwell Phair who studied classics - that is the culture and language of ancient Greece and Rome!  A Selected Bibliography offers readers suggestions for learning more about Pluto and also how it was named.  Elizabeth Haidle's accompanying illustrations were rendered in ink, graphite powder as well as digitally.

 The Girl Who Named Pluto will be of special interest to those keen on astronomy. That an eleven-year-old girl could successfully name a planet demonstrates that even children can contribute in small but significant ways to science.

Book Details:

The Girl Who Named Pluto: The Story of Venetia Burney by Alice B. McGinty
New York: Schwartz & Wade Books       2019

Monday, August 26, 2019

Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc by David Elliott

Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc tells the story of this famous girl-warrior saint who ultimately saved France from English occupation in the 15th century.

Told in verse from multiple perspectives, the novel opens with Joan about to be burned at the stake.
In the very first poem, Joan sets the stage.
"...My name is
Joan, but I am called the Maid. My
hands are bound behind me. The fire
beneath me laid."

As she awaits her fate at the stake, Joan thinks back on all the events that have led her to this moment.
"Every life is its own story--
not without a share of glory,
and  not without a share of grief.
I lived like a hero at seventeen.
At nineteen, I die like a thief."

Born in Lorraine in the Duchy of Bar, Joan lives in Domremy with her sister, two brothers, her parents and uncles and aunt.  Her parents, who are peasants work the land for a living and work hard. Her mother Isabelle in a poem of the same title states that she did her duty teaching Joan to churn, bake, plant and spin and that Joan did these all better than any girl in the village. Yet, Joan seemed unsettled.
"...Yet her mind
was elsewhere, settled on another need,
a need she could not share with her mother
or any other woman."
Although Joan tried her best to do what was asked of her, she was "possessed by a ruthless and persistent urge...".

At this time France was involved in a bitter civil war, Queen Isabeau had signed a treaty with the city of Troyes and betrayed her own son. King Henry, King of England  would now be King of France and not Charles VII. Joan considers Charles her king and not Henry. Henry had captured Paris and laid seige to Orleans. The dauphin fled south to Loire and established his court in Loire. While Joan's brothers went to war, she sat at home in her homespun red dress and sewed.

Then one morning, Joan's world changed drastically. While thinning seedlings, at age thirteen, she experiences a vision of St. Michael the Archangel telling her to be good. After this the archangel frequently appears along with St. Margaret and St. Catherine.  For the next three years Joan faithfully did her chores at home, but she knew that she had to leave
"Domremy for the nearby town
 Vaucouleurs, where Robert de 
Baudricourt, my voices said, would
get me to Chinon and the unanointed
king. I left my family, my
friends, everything I had loved or
known. ..."  
Joan's mission to turn the tide in the Hundred Years war and begin to drive the English from France had begun. As she thinks back on her part in the war, the fire at the stake begins to rise and consume her.


Voices is an imaginative and sometimes odd retelling of the story of St. Joan of Arc. Elliot, an award-winning author, uses metered and rhyming verse to express the voices of several people central to the story including Joan, her father Jacques d'Arc, her mother Isabelle,St. Michael, Robert De Baudricourt, Saint Catherine, Charles VII, Saint Margaret, and Bishop Pierre Cauchon.

As with Allan Wolf's The Watch That Ends The Night, a novel that tells the Titanic sinking in verse, Elliott includes the "voices" of inanimate objects as well as other unusual things. For example there are poems from Joan's sewing needle, the candle, the fairy tree of her childhood, alms, her father's cattle, her sword, Joan's red dress, the tunic she replaced it with,  Joan's hair, her armor, her warhorse and the fire that consumes her at the end. Other poems are by Silence, Virginity, The Road to Vaucouleurs, Lust, the Altar at Sainte Catherine de Fierbois, the Castle at Chinon, the sword at Fierbois, and so forth.

Elliott runs amok with the number of voices he includes, each "voice" telling its part in Joan's story. Joan's armor insists it did its "...very best to shield her from the pain of injury..." while the crossbow boasts "...I struck and laid her flat. She could not walk. She could not ride. I made sure of that." and later on "I am a master at my art". The sword at Fierbois wonders how Joan knew where it lay. In this well crafted poem the sword tells its past. "I've had my fill of human strife; I've had my taste of human blood. No more the bow, the lance, the knife....Who told the girl I rested here? How could she have known?" The stake opines that it is Joan's " and only friend, her stalwart intimate. On me she's learned she can depend."

Elliott decided to write his poems in forms such as villanelles and sestinas that were popular during Joan's lifetime. He also included forms that were developed a bit later. Some of the poems are calligrams, or shape poems, including "The Sword At Fierbois", "The Stake" and "The Crossbow". Elliott explains these poems at the back of the novel. Many of the poems are delightful in their rhyming and expressiveness. Others, particularly those of the saints are bizarre. Both Saint Michael and Saint Catherine question the belief of people in them, while Saint Margaret urges Joan to put her faith in the constancy of fire.  Nevertheless, Elliott manages to convey Joan's story to his readers and capture the girl soldier-saint's determination, urgency and courage to carry out the will of God for her king and country.

Interspersed with Elliot's poetry are quotes taken from Joan's Trial of Condemnation which resulted in her being burned at the stake as a heretic and the Trial of Nullification that occurred some twenty-four years after her martyrdom which absolved her. She was eventually canonized in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV.

Elliott does offer his readers a lovely map of France as it existed during Joan's lifetime, but no historical background to his novel. The conflict Joan fought in came to be called the Hundred Years War.  This war began in 1337 when King Edward III of England fought King Philip VI over land in France. The land had been claimed by English kings who ruled after the French William the Conqueror who ruled England. The English were at first successful but with the Black Death raging in England and a series of defeats, their luck changed. However, in 1413, the tide had turned in favour of the English who were now ruled by Henry V. He won the Battle of Agincourt as well as other battles and with the Treaty of Troyes in 1420, his heirs were to be  the successors to the French crown. Henry V married Catherine of Valois, the daughter of the French king. He also established a military alliance with Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, controlling much of northern France. With Henry's untimely death, his son Henry VI continued to fight for control of the north of France.

Joan of Arc was born in 1412, in Domremy a village that lay within the lands controlled by the Burgundians. However, the people of Domremy were faithful to the king of France. Joan was described later as a pious child who spent some time in prayer in church. When she was thirteen, in 1425, she began to experience what she later called her "voices". Joan was also able to discern in some way that they were St. Michael, St. Catherine and St. Margaret. These saints gradually made her aware of God's mission for her, to help the king of France. She was to go to Robert Baudricourt in Vaucouleurs. This Joan did in 1428 and again in 1429. Her prediction of the English defeat in the Battle of the Herrings convinced a skeptical Baudricourt and Joan was sent to meet the king in the town of Chinon. To protect herself, Joan wore men's clothing.

Despite the king disguising himself, Joan immediately recognized him and after an intensive examination by court theologians and bishops at Poitiers, was approved to be involved in France's army. At Chinon Joan refused the sword made for her, instead instructing that a search be made for an ancient sword, which she stated would be found buried beneath the alter of Ste. Catherine de Fierbois. According to a historical document,a letter by Sire de Rotslaer which was written on April 22, 1429, and which has been preserved, Joan predicted that she would raise the siege of Orleans, that in the battle for Orleans she would be wounded and that the king would be crowned at Reims.

All this came to pass: on May 8th the siege was raised, Joan was wounded in the breast by an arrow, and King Charles was crowned on July 17, 1429. With her mission now complete Joan wished to return home but was kept in the army against her will. Joan was wounded again in a failed assault on Paris, where she was shot in the thigh. In an attack on Compiegne, Joan was captured by the Burgundian forces that were attacking the town and held by John of Luxembourg who sold her to the English.

Joan was left to her fate by an ungrateful and apathetic King Charles VII. The English, also Catholic at this time, were as the Catholic Encyclopedia expresses so well, " feared their prisoner with a superstitious terror, partly because they were ashamed of the dread which she inspired, were determined at all costs to take her life. They could not put her to death for having beaten them, but they could get her sentenced as a witch and a heretic." And this too came to pass. Denied legal counsel and held in the secular prison - the Castle of Rouen where she was molested when dressed in women's clothing, Joan confounded her interrogators - theologians from the University of Paris. She was convicted of being a heretic for dressing as a man and for her "voices". Joan did recant once but her voices returned to chastise her, that this was displeasing to God and encouraging her to remain faithful. This was all Pierre Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais needed.  Joan was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431, her ashes dumped into the Seine River.

Joan had prophesied during her trial that within seven years the English would lose a bigger prize than Orleans. In 1437, Henry VI was defeated at Paris. The French eventually reclaimed their country from the English who had to deal with the civil War of the Roses.

Overall, Elliott's Voices is a good starting point for those interested in this popular French saint and her unconventional life. The beautiful cover is also sure to attract teen readers.

Book Details:

Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc by David Elliot
New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company     2019
194 pp.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Meet Elsie MacGill by Elizabeth MacLeod

Did you know that a woman was responsible for overseeing the manufacturing of Hawker Hurricanes, a small fighter plane used by the British during World War II? That woman was Elsie MacGill, a woman who was born in British Columbia in 1905. Elsie's parents encouraged her to study hard and they believed that girls should have a good education. Elsie's mother was one of the first women to become a judge in Canada!

Elsie took drawing lessons from Emily Carr who would go on to become a world famous painter.She loved to tinker, taking things apart to figure out how they worked. This led Elsie to discover that she wanted to be and engineer and so she enrolled in engineering at university. In 1927 Elsie MacGill graduated with an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering.

Her first job was as a junior engineer at the Austin Company in Pontiac, Michigan. Elsie became interested in aeronautics and this interest led her to earn a masters degree in aeronautical engineering at the University of Michigan in 1929.

However, the day before her graduation Elsie contracted polio, a serious illness that left her without feeling in her legs.

Over the next three years Else made a gradual recovery, learning to walk with a cane. She began working at Fairchild Aircraft Limited in Longueuil, Quebec working on planes. In 1938 she was hired as the chief aeronautical engineer for Canadian Car and Foundry Company. There she designed the Maple Leaf Trainer II, even riding along on the test flights.

With the start of World War II, a war in which airplanes would play a crucial role, Elsie MacGill would also play an important role. During the Battle of Britain, many fighter plane called Hawker Hurricanes were required as England battled in the air for its very existence. Elsie was responsible for co-ordinating production of these planes. She made important changes that would speed up their production.

As her reputation grew, Elsie, opened her own company and after the war became a technical advisor to the United Nation's International Civil Aviation Organization. In the 1960's and '70's she became involved in women's rights, advocating for equal opportunities for women in the sciences. Elsie, like many other trailblazing women, proved that women were just as capable as men when it came to engineering and science.


Elizabeth MacLeod's biography on little known Elsie MacGill is an appealing account of this amazing woman's life.

Elsie benefited greatly from the widespread social changes that were occurring in the early part of the 20th century and just after World War I. It was a time where women were beginning to play a more visible role in society. The right to vote was being won across the country and women were now working towards other changes. In the 1920's it was still unusual for a woman to enter a university to study engineering, the sciences and medicine. But many, like Elsie were demonstrating that women were just as capable as men in these areas.

Elsie came from a family of trail-blazing women: her maternal grandmother, Emma Gregory was a prominent suffragist and her mother was the first woman judge in British Columbia. Elsie's mother was very well educated, even by today's standards. She earned a Bachelor of Music in 1886, the first woman to do so in the British Commonwealth and then a Bachelor and Masters of Art by 1890. Elsie was the first woman to graduate from the University of Toronto with an degree in electrical engineering. She was also the first woman to earn a graduate degree in aeronautics from the University of Michigan. This made her the first woman aeronautical engineer in the world! It's difficult today to comprehend what an accomplishment all of this was in the 1920's, when the disciplines of science and engineering were not so welcoming to women students.

Elsie MacGill
Grady's biography portrays Elsie's strong work ethic, her determination to overcome obstacles both in her own personal life and in work and her creative approach to problems. For example, Elsie worked hard to regain the use of her legs after contracting polio immediately before her graduation at University of Toronto. And during World War II, she knew that efficient production of the Hawker Hurricane fighter plane was essential to Britain in the war against Nazi Germany so she removed inefficiencies that slowed production of the planes. She retrained factory workers and redesigned some basic components.

Mike Deas' illustrations bring life to Elsie's remarkable story. His artwork was created using a combination of digital and traditional methods.  The original sketches were created using a Wacom tablet and Photoshop. They were then traced onto watercolour paper and gouache and watercolour paints were applied. The final touch included using ink to add the black lines. The result is a somewhat comic book look that is appealing to younger readers. Deas has managed to really capture emotions in his artwork, showing Elsie's love working with planes and her determination to succeed.

Elsie MacGill demonstrated that women were more than capable of succeeding in the field of engineering.MacLeod's biography is a must read for young girls interested in science and a possible career in science or engineering. Included is a timeline of Elsie's life and a few photographs.

Image credits:

Book Details:

Meet Elsie MacGill by Elizabeth MacLeod
Toronto: Scholastic Canada Ltd.     2019

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Write To Me: Letters From Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind by Cynthia Grady

One day Katherine Tasaki tells Miss Breed the librarian at the San Diego Public Library that she has to move, that all Japanese have to move. But Miss Breed is already aware of this. The Japanese looked like an enemy in a war far away and so they are being sent to a prison.

Miss Breed gave Katherine an addressed penny postcard with a stamp to send back to  her so she would know where Katherine had been sent.

Miss Breed also came to the train station when it was time for Katherine and the other Japanese in San Diego to leave. She was stunned to see so many Japanese-Americans who had tags attached to the clothing, and armed soldiers overseeing them. She brought books and more postcards.

After the Japanese Americans had left, Miss Breed received her first postcard. Soon more arrived, all postmarked Arcadia, California.  Miss Breed began sending boxes of books to this location for the Japanese children.  Miss Breed visited her friends in Arcadia too, bringing boxes of books for the children to read.

This kindly librarian also did much to make her fellow Americans aware of what was happening to Japanese Americans. She wrote articles about them and advocated on their behalf for a school and library at the internment camp. The children and their families were eventually transferred from California to a new camp in Poston, Arizona. The weather in Arizona could be harsh; very cold in the winter and very hot in the summer. This made many of the Japanese sick. Still Miss Breed faithfully helped her friends. She sent crafting materials, books and seeds.

After three long years, the war ended and the Japanese Americans were released from the camps. Most had lost everything, their homes and businesses. Katherine Tasaki and her family returned to San Diego and to her friend Miss Clara Breed.


Write To Me tells the little known story of librarian Clara Breed who opposed the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and who did all she could to help them during this difficult time.

Clara Estelle Breed was born to Rueben Leonard Breed, a minister and his wife Estelle Marie Potter in 1906 in Fort Dodge, Iowa. Clara graduated from Ponoma College in 1927 and earned her Master of Library Science from Western Reserve University. She was hired as a children's librarian in 1928 at San Diego Library. After the war she would become the city librarian, a position she would remain in until her retirement.

Clara Breed
Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japanese Americans were relocated from San Diego as well as many other cities on the West Coast further inland. Many of Clara's patrons were children from Japanese families. When they learned they were to be sent to internment camps, they arrived at the library to turn in their library cards and to say good-bye. Clare Breed gave her young friends postcards and asked them to write her telling her where they were and what they needed. She sent them many things besides books, including candy, soap and toothbrushes.

But she also campaigned on their behalf, against Executive Order 9066 which was signed by President Franklin Roosevelt in February of 1942. This order classed certain areas as military areas and allowed for the removal of people living in there. This seemed to apply to those of Japanese heritage, although Germans and Italians were also placed in camps. Over one hundred thousand Japanese were displaced as a result. Clara Breed wrote letters admonishing officials that the principles and freedoms the United States was founded on must be upheld.

After the war, many of the children who knew Clara Breed returned to visit her in San Diego.When Clara Breed moved to a retirement home, she gave the letters and postcards she had received from the children to Elizabeth Kikuchi Yamada. Years later, Clara was the guest of honour at a reunion in 1991 of the Japanese Americans who had been sent to Poston, Arizona.

Write To Me tells the story of Clare Breed in an appealing, sensitive manner that allows younger readers to learn about war, prejudice and how some people do act on their convictions. In wartime, laws based on prejudice or fear are often put in place. This happened in the United States and Canada where Japanese, Germans, and Italians and others deemed "enemy aliens" were placed in internment camps.  Clare Breed however, believed that the United States needed to reconsider its policy of imprisoning people of Japanese ethnicity. These people were law-abiding and loyal to the United States. Some even went on to valiantly serve in the war for a country that treated them very badly. She sent food and necessities to them, she visited them and she advocated for them.

Grady includes an Author's Note which tells about Clara Breed, a Notable Dates in Clara Breed's Life, a Selected History of Japanese People in the United States which lists important historical dates, Source Notes that Grady used in her research and a list of books in Further Readings.

One thing that is missing in this story, is the mention at the very beginning of the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in December of 1941. It was this action that prompted the United States government to consider (as would be later proven to be incorrect) all people of Japanese heritage as possible enemies and to move them into internment camps away from the West Coast. The forced relocation by the U.S. Government is therefore not placed in the context of this event, and not explained in the picture book, except to say that it was due to a war half-way around the world. Except that war in the Pacific, was now brought to the United States by the Japanese. The executive order after the bombing was also likely due to decades of systemic racist policies in the United States directed towards Asians, particularly Chinese and Japanese.

Write To Me was illustrated by Amiko Hirao using Faber Castell pencils on Canson Mi-Teintes white paper. Her simple, soft drawings capture the essence of Clara Breed's story and the Japanese internment. Hirao has included some of the postcards written to Clara Breed in her illustrations. This picture book is essential in aiding young people understand a serious injustice done to innocent people mainly because there were different.

Book Details:

Write To Me by Cynthia Grady
Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge Publishing Inc.    2018

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Amal Unbound: A Novel by Aisha Saeed

Twelve-year-old Amal lives with her parents and three younger sisters, Seema, Rabia and Safa.  Her mother is expecting a baby any day and Amal and her sisters are excited. Everyone hopes this baby will be a boy. They live in a small Punjabi village in Pakistan which is controlled by Khan Sahib, a powerful landlord who lives in a large compound some distance away.

Amal loves school, and is the favourite of their teacher, Miss Sadia. She usually helps Miss Sadia after school but with her mother's baby due any day, her father wants her to come home and help. Amal's dream is to someday be a teacher and to attend college with her best friend Hasfa.

Amal frequently meets Omar, who is the son of their servant Parvin, after school by the stream near her father's sugarcane fields. Omar and Parvin live in the shed behind their house. Omar attends the boys school which  has a much larger library than Amal's girls school. Their secret meetings offer Amal a way of gaining access to those books which Omar brings for her.

This time their meeting is interrupted by Seema who tells Amal that she must come home as the baby is coming. Her mother gives birth to a healthy baby girl, a fifth girl and not the boy her parents were hoping for.  This sends Amal's mother into a serious depression. She spends all day in her bed sleeping and can barely care for the new baby. Amal realizes that she needs to stay home for a few days to help out. However after missing nine days, her father has other plans, insisting that Amal, as the eldest daughter, must now stay home as to care for her younger sisters, Safa and Rabia.  Amal is devastated as this means she will fall further behind in school and likely miss exams.

Seema gives Amal hope as she brings home a folder with some of Amal's school work from Miss Sadia. Two of Amal's mother's friends, Fozia and Miriam Auntie arrive bringing laddus, one of her mother's favourite treats. During their visit, Amal overhears them talking about the Khan family and how Jawad Sahib who now controls the village, has a reputation for being cruel. Jawad destroyed the entire village of Hazarabad when the villagers banded together and refused to pay back their debts. He destroyed all of their orange groves and cotton fields. Amal's friend Hafsa stops by to talk and encourages Amal to continue to pressure her father to return to school so their dream of attending college together won't be lost.

However, Amal's life is ripped apart when she has a fateful encounter with Jawad Khan after shopping at the market. After purchasing a pomegranate as treat for herself, Amal steps out on the road to walk home and is struck by a black car driven by Jawad Khan. He offers to drive her home but wants to take her pomegranate for his mother. Jawad offers Amal a fistful of money for the fruit but Awal stubbornly refuses, tired of always having to give up things dear to her for someone else. Her refusal results in terrible consequences for her, but in the end offers Amal the chance to bring the Khan family to justice and free her village from their tyranny.


Amal Unbound is a well-written novel for younger readers that tackles some of the issues girls in many developing countries face.These issues include the inability to make their own decisions about their lives, the lack of schooling for girls, the preference of boys over girls and the lack of freedom to do things girls in the West take for granted, like riding a bike or driving a car. These inequities are very much a part of Amal's life in Amal Unbound.

When Amal's friend Hasfa shows up at her house riding a bike, Amal questions her as to whether her parents know she's riding a bicycle. "Most people around here frowned upon girls riding bicycles, and Hasfa's parents had let her know they were one of them." But Hasfa insists that if her brothers are able to ride a bicycle, she should be able to as well.

With the birth of her sister Lubna, Amal is shocked to learn just how disappointed her parents are. "Of course I had known they wanted a son. I heard the conversations of our neighbors and the whispers in our own house. but staring at my parents' expressions right now, I saw they didn't look disappointed; they looked crushed." Because of the cultural belief that a boy is preferred over  a girl, Amal's mother becomes severely depressed and unable to care for her family.  Amal cannot understand why everyone is so disappointed and questions this belief when Miriam Auntie shows her dismay. "I knew everyone wanted  to have a son, but I was getting tired of hearing this. Wasn't she once a little girl, too?"  Amal doesn't understand why the women in her village have this view of girls as they were once girls themselves.

As a result of her mother's serious post-partum depression, Amal, as the eldest daughter is forced to stay home from school and care for the family. Her dream of going to college and becoming a teacher appears to be slipping away. And when she pushes back against her father's decision for her to remain home, her father questions her need for extensive education.

Amal confronts her father about returning to school after the birth of her sister, but he is noncommittal. His attitude is that she has had enough schooling for a girl. Her dreams are never broached nor considered. " 'In a week or so, we can see how things are going,' my father continued. 'But in any case, remember, you have already learned a lot. More than many of the neighborhood girls. You can read and write. What more do you need to know?' " 

The attitudes towards girls lead to Amal standing her ground when confronted by Jawad Shaib. Instead of backing down as a girl would be expected to, she refuses to give her pomegranate to Jawad and snatches it back from him. "I thought of my father, who had no time for my dreams. My little sisters and their endless demands. Suddenly I felt tired. Tired of feeling powerless. Tired of denying my own needs because someone else needed something more. Including this man. This stranger. Buying me off. Denying me this smallest of pleasures." 

When the crisis with the Khan family develops, Amal's mother seems to recover. It is at this point that Amal questions her mother about the preference for a boy over a girl." ' Why is having a boy all anyone can talk about?'" Her mother's response references cultural practices in Pakistan,
'Who else will care for us in our old age? Who will run the farm and keep your grandfather's dream alive?' "
When Amal states that she or Seema can do this her mother responds that when she marries she will belong to her husband's family, that this is how the world works. It is a phrase that Amal will hear repeatedly but one which she eventually decides to tackle head on.

Aisha Saeed tackles all of these issues with sensitivity and in a way that is not judgemental but which encourages young readers to critically consider them. Through the character of Amal she expresses how girls might feel about being denied school or the choice to ride a bike. The author portrays girls in countries like Pakistan as having the same dreams as girls everywhere, only to see them frustrated by restrictive cultural views. When Amal confronts her mother about the preference for boys, her mother's reply resonates with resignation and acceptance.She tells Amal, "I wish it wasn't this way, but this is how the world works."

Saeed has crafted a determined, courageous heroine in Amal, who grasps the opportunity to bring down the family in control of her village. Forced into indentured servitude to the Khan family, Amal sees her entire life upended. Although she it treated well by Jawad's mother, Nasreen Baji, she is unable to continue her education and is separated from her family. She discovers what her father and mother have always told her that "life isn't fair".  Despite being well treated, Amal never gives up on her own dream but she is motivated to try to bring down the Khan family when she sees how much harm they are doing and how families she knows are suffering. She has no idea if her efforts will be successful, but seeing how many people the Khan family has hurt, she decides to act. "If everyone decided nothing could change, nothing ever would."

This is the important message Saeed has for young girls today; you can make changes that will make life better for girls in countries like Pakistan or anywhere. In contrast to her mother who has accepted things they way they are, Amal takes the risk to change something. She is inspired by a teacher at the literacy center who tells her about how he comes from a family of lawyers and the expectation was that he too would be one. But he found a way to achieve his dream. Asif tells her, "I'm the first one to be a teacher in my family. No one supported me, but I did it because this is what I always wanted to do. If I thought nothing would change, nothing ever would."  When Amal, Nabila and Bilal find the evidence they need against Jawad, Bilal admonishes Nabila telling her knowing will not change anything. But Amal thinks differently. "There is was again. Nothing would change. This family was so powerful, there was no use in trying to fight them. But..."Just because something seems impossible, does that mean we don't try?" I asked."  Amal's big risk plays out into a big change for her village. 

Amal Unbound with it's beautiful cover is a must read for young and older readers alike. 

Book Details:

Amal Unbound: A Novel by Aisha Saeed
New York: Nancy Paulsen Books 2018
226 pp.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Out Of This World: The Surreal Art of Leonora Carrington by Michelle Markel

In Out of This World, American author, Michelle Markel tells the story of English artist, Leonora Carrington.

In Out of This World, young readers learn about the life of Leonora Carrington and her art. When she was four-years-old, Leonora loved scribbling on the walls of her home. Her imagination was fed by the "enchanting legends from Ireland" that her grandmother told. "These stories took Leonora to worlds that shimmered beyond this one, and when the spirits flew, and the gods stirred their cauldrons, and the fairies shifted shapes...." Although her drawings were "fanciful",  her parents wanted her to follow a more traditional path, to become a lady and then marry a wealthy man. To that end, at age nine she was sent to boarding school. But Leonora rebelled until she was finally sent to Miss Penrose's Academy in Florence. There, she discovered that others were painting in the same way she was and this only fueled her determination to become an artist.

Leonora's parents eventually relented and sent her to art school in London where she met other artists who were known as surrealists, including Max Ernst, a famous surrealist. She eventually travelled to Paris to meet other surrealists. In 1940, with war coming to France, artists fled the country, many of them settling in Mexico. The exotic plants and animals of Mexico only stimulated Leonora's imagination further. She became friends with a Spanish painter named Remedios. Through her friend, she met a photographer named Chiki who eventually became her husband.

Even as a wife and mother, Leonora continued to create her eccentric paintings. Her first exhibition in New York City enchanted visitors. Through the years Leonora continued to paint, design theatre costumes and create fantastical sculptures. 


Leonora Carrington was an English artist whose paintings are known for their strange juxtaposition of objects - a type of art known as surrealism. A more detailed biography of  Leonora Carrington follows. Leonora was born into a wealthy family in Cockerham, England in 1917. As a child she lived with her parents and her three brothers, Patrick, Arthur and Gerald on their family's large estate.

Raised in a Roman Catholic family, Leonora was often rebellious. She and eventually was sent to Mrs. Penrose's Academy of Art in Florence, Italy. In Florence, Leonora was exposed to the world of art through the many galleries in this beautiful city. She wanted to become a painter, a choice her mother supported but her father did not.

In 1935, she attended the Chelsea School of Art in London where she met artists who painted in a unique style that was so attractive to Leonora. These artists were part of the Surrealist movement which drew on the imagination and free conscious thinking to create art. Leonora became involved with Max Ernst, a much older artist, running off to Paris with him. There she encountered more artists who were part of the Surrealist movement including Pablo Picasso, Salvadore Dali and Yves Tanguy. It was at this time that she painted Inn of the Dawn Horse which was a self-portrait.

Inn of the Dawn Horse by Leonora Carrington
Leonora and Max continued to live together in the south of France until 1940 when Max was sent to a Nazi detention camp. Max's imprisonment was so distressing that Leonora fled to Spain where she was committed to a mental institution, Santander against her will, after suffering a mental breakdown. Leonora was able to escape from the mental hospital and travel to Portugal where she  met and married Renato Leduc, a Mexican diplomat who helped her escape to the United States. She lived for a year in New York City, where she reconnected with the surrealist movement. At this time, Max Ernst was also in New York City but Leonora was not interested in rekindling their relationship. She then traveled to Mexico where she would live for the rest of her life. By this time she had divorced Leduc and was now a part of the vibrant art community in Mexico.

She became good friends with Remedios Vaso, a Surrealist Leonora had known in France. Leonora married Emerico Weisz, a Hungarian photographer who went by the nickname of "Chiki" and they had two children, Gabriel and Pablo. In 1947, a large exhibition of her work was hosted by the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York.

Leonora Carrington also found the time to write. Her works include a set of surrealist short stores such as the House of Fear written in 1938, Down Below which she wrote about her forced incarceration and The Hearing Trumpet which was a surrealist novel. In the 1990's Leonora created numerous large bronze sculptures. She was the last of the Surrealist movement artists, passing away in  2011.

As a picture book, Out Of This World does an excellent job of capturing the essence of Leonora Carrington's life and art. Leonora's work was influenced by the Celtic myths she learned from her grandmother, as well as her own dabbling in magical realism and alchemy. In Out Of This World, Markel focuses on Leonora's determination to forge her own path in life, even when she was a young girl. She rebelled against the constraints of  the time and the expectations of her Roman Catholic parents. She did  not want the traditional life of a wife and mother that was expected of her at the turn of the 20th century. She didn't want to be a debutante.  Instead, she rebelled and did the very opposite expected. She lived with a man, Max Ernst which resulted in her father disowning her. She was married twice, also highly unusual in the first half of the 20th century. While her choices in early life  were broke with tradition,  eventually Leonora did settle down and marry and have children. She eventually found her home in Mexico and it was there that her style matured.

Leonora was a strong woman who survived the displacement of war, overcame mental health issues and treatment that was harsh and against her wishes, and emigration to countries halfway around the world.  She persevered to create the art she felt inspired to paint. Markel writes that Leonora painted women in a way that was different from how men painted women, not as objects of beauty but both beautiful and strong. "Instead of lying on a couch, they were listening to the stars. Instead of posing in gowns, they were going on magical processions. They were friends with monkeys, Minotaurs, and mythic birds."  Her art, as her life, was not traditional but explored very unusual themes and was populated with strange objects, animals and people often strangely situated. Markel certainly portrays all of this in her book, aided by Amanda Hall's beautiful illustrations.

Illustrator Amanda Hall's artwork  in Out of This World reflects this artist's unique life and work. Hall's art is fantastical, capturing Leonora's life in a way that she herself might have painted it. Hall's illustrations are filled with vibrant colours that depict Leonora's rebellious childhood, her Irish grandmother's influence, her life in Italy and France, her escape from France, and her life in Mexico. Hall writes that "...the specific challenge for me was to convey the spirit, themes, and sensibility she explored in her creative output without attempting to re-create literally any of her actual imagery."

A beautifully crafted picture book to inspire budding artists of any age.

Image credits:

Book Details:

Out of This World: The Surreal Art of Leonora Carrington by Michelle Market
New York: Balzer + Bray        2019

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Refugee 87 by Ele Fountain

With the widespread influx of refugees to Europe from Africa and the Middle East in recent years, as well as the ongoing issue of illegal immigration in the United States,  it's no surprise that this theme is beginning to show up in both young adult and even juvenile fiction novels. Ele Fountain's debut novel, Refugee 87 is one such novel that explores the journey of a young refugee with heartbreaking realism.

Fourteen-year-old Shiferwa (Shif) Gebreselassie lives next door to his best friend Bini in a two room house.  Both boys are good students and ambitious about their futures. While Bini wants to be a doctor someday, Shif is considering engineering. Both boys have lost their fathers; Shif's father died when he was seven, while Bini's father left around the same time to find a better job but never returned. Every day Shif's mother goes to work taking his younger sister Lemlem with her to her job mending clothing.

One day Shif and Bini notice an army truck parked outside their school with four armed soldiers watching the students enter the school. At school the atmosphere is tense and Shif finds he is unable to focus. At home that night, Shif waits for his mother and Lemlem to return home. When they are late arriving he decides to go to the nearest shop to purchase some injera despite being forbidden by his mother to go out after school. It is a rule he has religiously obeyed until now. On his way home Shif hears soldiers knocking on the doors of houses and when a soldier calls out to him, he flees home. Later his mother tells him the reason for her strict rule,  that by going out he makes himself visible to others and to the army.

The next day Bini doesn't attend school, despite having to write an important test. After school Shif tries to see Bini but Bini's mother, Saba tells him that he's at market and will not be returning to school. This news leaves Shif in shock because he knows his friend loves school.  They have one more year of school and the mandatory two years of military school before they can apply to university. That night Shif questions his mother about these events and learns the stunning news that his father is likely not dead. A university lecturer, he had requested that teachers be paid more and was taken away by the government. He was imprisoned in a camp with others who had also spoken out against the government. His mother doesn't know for sure if Shif's father is still alive but she remains hopeful.

Shif's mother also tells him that the military is doing an operation known as a giffa, rounding up those boys and girls they believe are trying to escape military school. Because Shif is the son of someone considered by the government to be a traitor, if he is caught in the giffa he will likely never be released from military school. It is likely that he will be sent to the gold mines. The two mothers instead have planned for the boys to leave the country; they will leave in the morning with smugglers who will take them to the border and then north to the coast where they will take a boat to Europe. Shif's mother explains that he must learn her phone number as well as his Uncle Batha's number in case of emergency.

However, their plans are thwarted when, in the middle of the night, soldiers raid both boys' homes and drag Shif and Bini into the night and into the back of a waiting truck. Driven miles from home, into the desert and imprisoned in a metal shipping container with other political prisoners, Shif and Bini know their situation is dire. With the help of other prisoners, the two boys are given a second chance at life, a chance to escape and tell the world what is happening.


Refugee 87 also published as Boy 87 is a riveting fictional account of one refugee's journey out of Eritrea to Europe. The title is taken from the name given to Shif when he is taken to a military prison by soldiers. Fountain who is a British writer, lived for several years in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia at a time when the government enacted laws punishing those critical of the regime.

Fountain doesn't focus on the names of the countries in her novel, because she "...wanted the focus to be on his experience rather than the politics of one regime."  While this is understandable, it means there is less context to Shif's experience. Instead, Fountain is appealing to her young readers on an emotional level. Fountain does hint at some of the reasons life in his country might be dangerous; for example, the government imprisons those who speak out against it. However, life goes on for Shif until he is targeted by the military.

Refugee 87 offers a good starting point to familiarize young readers with the refugee experience. But outside of the novel, the complex reasons why people leave their homes and families to undertake a dangerous journey need to be considered, even by young people. We don't see the mass migration of people from Europe to Yemen or Syria because of the West's values that focus on justice and rights and our democratic political systems.   It would be helpful to encourage young people to think in a critical way as to why this is. What are the political, social and economic realities in these countries? Refugees generally don't want to leave their homelands with all the risks and loss that entails, so how can we in the West help them to stay and effect positive change in their own countries? What is the role of countries in the region? And for those who do want to leave how might we assist them?

Nevertheless, Fountain's portrayal of the refugee experience seems realistic in the most tragic of ways. Through Shif's eyes we experience many of the dangers refugees face on their journeys toward safety and freedom. Shif himself endures cold and heat, starvation, and loneliness.  Clues in the story suggest that Shif has travelled from his home country of Eritrea (where injera is a main staple, where the women wear a white netela and the coinage is silver with the words Liberty, Equality, and Justice) into Sudan (where the women wear brightly coloured headscarfs and the coinage is gold around the edge and silver in the middle. Later on in the story he also greets the mother and daughter with the phrase "Kemay hadirkin" which means "Good morning" in Tigrinya, a language spoken in Ethiopia and Eritrea. ) In this new country (likely Sudan which lies north of Eritrea),  Shif cannot speak the language and receives only the barest of help. He doesn't know anyone, that is until he meets a family from Eritrea, Shewit, her husband Mesfin and their daughter Almaz.

But if Shif and the other refugees thought they were safe in Sudan they quickly discover the opposite. There is a new danger the refugees now face; human trafficking. Shewit warns Shif that he mustn't go to the refugee camp to the south because human traffickers lie in wait outside the camp. Almaz tells him this is also the reason they do not wear their white netela: the white scarf marks them as refugees who can be targeted by traffickers.

Refugee 87 also portrays the special risks that women and young girls face. In the market, Almaz is grabbed by a man who intends to sell her. She is rescued by Shif but this now marks them as targets for the traffickers.

Refugees are also at risk of physical injury and death. Shif badly sprains his ankle during his escape from the prison. Genet, a older woman refugee was injured by shrapnel when a land mine exploded. Without proper medical care, her condition worsens. By the time Shif resumes his journey, Genet is likely dying from sepsis. On their journey to the coast, Shewit breaks her leg when the truck they are traveling in crashes. She and her husband Mesfin are left by the roadside along with many other injured refugees, likely to die. And Fountain also portrays the harrowing boat trip across the Mediterranean during which Shif and Almaz almost drown.

Refugee 87 will help young readers to empathize with the plight of refugees who often leave everything and everyone familiar to them behind for the hope of a new life. Shif briefly explains what this means to him. "Inside my head I carry the stories of what went before. Those stories are the threads that will tie me to my other life. I am still Shif. But from now on there will always be two parts to me."

Fountain's well-written, moving novel proves that writers write best about those topics dearest to their heart and it's obvious the plight of those in Ethiopia is important to her. Highly recommended.

Book Details:

Refugee 87 by Ele Fountain
New York: Little, Brown and Company      2018
247 pp.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

All For One by Melissa De La Cruz

All For One is the third and final installment in Melissa de la Cruz's Alexander Hamilton trilogy. The novel opens in June of 1785, with Alex and Eliza, happily married, living for the past two years in a growing and bustling New York City.Alex is beginning to make a name for himself as a lawyer having won the Caroline Childress case. Caroline Childress was the widow of a British soldier who fought against the Continental troops in the War of Independence. Alex and Eliza are at the top of the New World social ladder in New York, especially with Eliza's family connections to the Van Rensselaers, Livingstons and others.

 Eliza and Alex meet her younger brother, seventeen-year-old John Schuyler who is arriving in New York to study at Columbia, formerly King's College. John who is nine years younger than Eliza is the only surviving son of the Schuylers and great things are expected of him. Other changes in their household include taking on a new footman. Simon, the son of their cook, Rowena has moved to the Beekman estate where he is working as a groom. To replace him, Eliza and Alex have taken on Rowena's nephew, Drayton Pennington, her sister Nigella's son.

Now well established in the home on Wall Street, Eliza and Alex are working on starting a family. However, after eight months of trying, there seems to be no baby on the horizon. Until Eliza begins complaining about Rowena's cooking and feeling unsettled in the morning. She soon realizes that she is pregnant after a dream in which her mother asks her to name the baby Philip after her father.

Their house sees two new additions; Drayton Pennington the new footman and Emma Trask, the orphaned cousin of Prudence Schlesinger and whom Eliza takes on as a maid.Soon Eliza finds herself wanting to match make, specifically Emma with her brother John. To that end she decides to hold a party in honour of her two new house members, John and Emma.

Meanwhile Alex is retained by the Reverend Provoost of Trinity Church to find a way around the church's charter which limits Trinity to an income of five thousand pounds per annum, so that a new and larger church can be built. As he's working on the Trinity file, Alex's clerk, Nippers ushers in a woman named Maria Reynolds. When Alex learns that she is married, he feels he is safe from any sort of indiscretion. However, Alex could not be more wrong.


All For One concludes the Alexander Hamilton trilogy which capitalized on the Hamilton musical craze that began a few years back. De La Cruz has taken her readers through the meeting of Eliza Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton in Eliza and Alex and through the very early years of their marriage in Love and War. In this novel, De La Cruz tackles Eliza's first pregnancy and Alex's entanglement with Maria Reynolds. De La Cruz plays with the timeline somewhat: Alex and Eliza's first son, Philip was born in 1782 and not 1785, and Alex's affair with Maria Reynolds occurred in 1791-92 when Eliza was pregnant with their son John Church Hamilton.

All For One weaves together the lives of Eliza and Alex through two storylines; the first involves Eliza and her efforts to get her orphanage off the ground while dealing with her pregnancy and two new members of her household, and the second involves Alex's work on the Trinity case as well as his relationship with Maria Reynolds.

In All For One, Eliza's primary focus seems to be playing match maker, reminiscent of Jane Austen's Emma Woodhouse. Eliza insists that the new country not need to obey the Old World conventions of class and family status. To that end she attempts to match her brother John from her wealthy Schuyler family with the penniless, orphaned Emma Trask. Likewise Eliza suggests the ultra-wealthy Betty Van Renasselaer consider her handsome footman, Drayton Pennington. Although Eliza is in earnest, both Betty and John find her efforts comical and impractical. Eliza is convinced that the United States be different than "the hidebound ways of the Europeans." Eliza tells Betty and John, "...The rules came from the king down, and each step on the rung was clearly demarcated. Their roles restricted them, but it also gave them a sense of identity. Our generation is much more open to possibility. We can choose our own roles. We are not bound by expectations of family or class, the United States, one is free to fall in love with a gentleman as well as with a footman."

It is while visiting the Van Cortlandts that Eliza, like Austen's Emma realizes she has it all wrong. At a ball at the Beekman estate, James Beekman points out to Eliza that it is Emma and Drayton who are wooing one another, while Jane Beekman suggests to Eliza the following morning that in fact Betty and John appear to be "taken" with one another. These revelations stun Eliza who feels betrayed since her intention was to improve both Emma and Drayton's "stations" in life! When confronted later on, Emma tells Eliza "...You like to pretend that America is a classless society, and while that may be true in Mr. Hamilton's speeches and essays, in real life the world is still very much divided by how much money one has, and for how long. There are still rich and poor, and the former still have very strong ideas about the latter's place." Emma tells Eliza that "a snob like the wealthy Betty Van Renasselaer is easier to deal with. And at least she is honest about her place in the world and has a sense of humor about it as well."

The second storyline deals with Alexander Hamilton and his efforts on behalf of Trinity Church as well as his relationship with Maria Reynolds. It was interesting to see how De La Cruz approached the events surrounding Alexander Hamilton's affair with Maria Reynolds. Hamilton is portrayed as being willfully blind towards Maria Reynolds,  convinced that her story about being ill-treated by her husband is true. Hamilton's trusted detective Miguel de La Vera uncovers evidence that suggests that Maria Reynolds is really Maria Lewis who has never married James Reynold and that the latter "uses women to swindle married men. Honest married men...". He warns Hamilton that she may be part of a effort to entrap and blackmail him. Instead, Hamilton decides, "No...She was a woman alone in the world, a woman in a position not unlike the one his mother had found herself in - and his mother was innocent and deserved a better life. So did Maria Reynolds. She deserved his trust, and if he were honest, he was lonely." And so instead of dropping her as his client,  he goes to visit her.

While Eliza is visiting the Van Cortlandt's to secure a donation for her orphanage, she becomes seriously ill and spends a month at their home recuperating, leaving Alex alone. It is in her absence that Hamilton's affair begins with Maria Reynolds. In All For One, De La Cruz  suggests that Alex forms a bond with Maria because they had similar life experiences. "She knew the world as it was, like he did, the cruelty and the coarseness, she knew abandonment an deceit and hunger and survival, just as he did. They were alike in a way that Eliza would never understand."

Alex is able to tell Maria about his past in a way he could never manage with Eliza. "Alex told her the full story of his early years in St. Croix and Nevis. All the things he had never told Eliza, for fear that she would reject him for being too common...Maybe it was because Eliza, for all her independence and empathy, was still a woman of her class, a little too inclined to think of the poor as projects rather than real people, as evidenced by her meddling in the love lives of Emma Trask and Drayton Pennington, or maybe it was because he had never shared this part of his past with her..."  It is this connection that seemingly leads him to commit adultery with Reynolds.

But it is Eliza who is the star in this re-telling of the Alexander Hamilton saga: she races from her sickbed to save her husband from possible death after learning of his infidelity and his pending duel with rival Aaron Burr (a duel that in real life did not occur at this time). And against all reason, she forgives him, saving her marriage, although her husband's reputation is ruined. Eliza explains, "Either she truly forgave her husband or she didn't. If she didn't, then there was no point in continuing the marriage. And if she did, then she must do it fully. She must remember the man she had married, and why she had married him." In the 1700's it is likely that the prospect of divorce was far worse than a husband's infidelity. Or perhaps Eliza Schuyler Hamilton was truly a remarkable woman.

All For One is the finale in De La Cruz's trilogy. At close to four hundred pages, All For One sometimes gets bogged down in extraneous detail that perhaps could have been edited out or at least pared down. For example there are detailed passages about what life was like in New York in 1776 and how it has changed in the last nine years. There are several pages explaining the situation with the Trinity church  that Alex is retained to sort out. While some of these details are interesting, they tend to distract from the overall storyline.

Nevertheless, fans of Hamilton will enjoy this final installment with all its heartbreak and betrayal as well as the post-colonial detail of life in the newly founded United States of America.

Book Details:

All For One by Melissa De La Cruz
New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons      2019
386 pp.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

The Bug Girl: Maria Merian's Scientific Vision by Sarah Glenn Marsh

Maria Merian was born in 1647 to Matthaeus Merian and Johanna Sibylla Heim in Frankfurt, Germany. Matthaeus was a famous engraver who passed his exceptional talent onto Maria and her two older brothers Matthaeus Jr. and Caspar. Maria's father died when she was only three years old. Her mother remarried, to a painter named Jacob Marrel who taught Maria how to paint in watercolours.She did not learn to paint with oils because many Germany cities forbade women from selling oil paintings.

Maria married Johann Andreas Graff in 1665 and three years later gave birth to a daughter, Johanna Helena in 1668. That year they moved to Nurnberg, Graff's hometown. Maria spent time painting watercolours of flowers but during her painting of plants she began to observe the various insects on and around them. Her observations were captured in beautiful paintings which were also very accurate. Another daughter, Dorothea Maria in 1678.

In The Bug Girl, Merian is portrayed as a young girl who was deeply interested in the world around her. She observed the natural world, especially the plants, and insects that crawled and flew. Marsh explains that during this time the average person was very superstitious about the world around them. Very little was known about how insects came to be. It was widely believed that "creatures such as butterflies, moths, and frogs were born from mud puddles in a process known as 'spontaneous generation.' " Because of the belief that anyone interested in these creatures was likely evil,  Maria had to study them secretly, trying not to attract anyone's notice.

To understand how caterpillars came into existence, Maria studied silk worms which were the easiest to find. When the eggs hatched she learned by trial and error that they liked to eat mulberry leaves.She also learned that the silkworm caterpillars grew large enough, they formed cocoons which eventually opened to reveal beautiful white moths. Her work confirmed the conclusions Francesco Redi had reached in 1668, that spontaneous generation did not exist. Instead they went through a process now called metamorphosis.

Maria continued to observe and paint and also to teach other girls how to do the same. Eventually she and her daughter, Dorothea traveled to Suriname in South America on a scientific expedition. On this journey, at the age of fifty-two,  she would observe and paint many unusual insects. Maria was forced to leave Suriname after two years, due to ill health but she did publish a book of her observations that was well received. Maria passed away in 1717, leaving a legacy that has been rediscovered three hundred years later.


Sphinx moth, Maria Merian

The Bug Girl brings to life the remarkable story of Maria Merian, a woman who broke the conventions of her time to observe and record the natural world around her. In the process Maria's work helped to dispel some of the superstitions common in the 1600's and contributed significantly to the field of biology. A unique feature of her beautiful, detailed paintings is that they featured insects in their natural habitat, portraying the plants and flowers that were key to their life cycles.  Her many paintings were published in various books including Blumenbach (Book of Flowers) in three parts, Neues Blumenbach (New Book of Flowers) which was published in 1680, Der Raupen (The Caterpillar) which was a book about the life cycle of the caterpillar, part I published in 1679 and a second book published in 1683.

Her work from Suriname was published in a book titled Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium which was available both in colour and uncoloured. Despite the fact that she was a woman, her book was much sought after. Many of the plates of her illustrations were purchased by Peter the Great and now reside in St. Petersburg. In 2017, the 300th anniversary of her death in 1717, Merian's book on Suriname was republished, containing many plates of her art. Marsh has reproduced some in the front and back of her picture book.

Maria Merian's careful observations of insects, sometimes done overnight, meant that she captured aspects of the life cycle of insects that were not well known in the 17th century and early 18th century.  She recorded the life cycles of one hundred and eighty-six insects! Maria's focus was mainly on insects, although she also studied frogs, amphibians and reptiles.

While Marsh's text captures the essence of Maria Merian's contributions, the illustrations leave much to be desired, especially considering the beautiful detail of Maria's own paintings.  More attractive illustrations would like capture the readers interest and make this picture book biography more appealing.

image credit:

Book Details:

The Bug Girl: Maria Merian's Scientific Vision by Sarah Glenn Marsh
Chicago: Albert Whitman & Company       2019