I'm delighted to welcome Margarita Engle back to bookstogether, in advance of the publication of her first picture book, Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian (Henry Holt, April 2010) and in honor of National Women's History Month.
This year's theme is Writing Women Back Into History, which is precisely what Margarita is doing for Maria Merian, a 17th century Dutch naturalist and artist whose work greatly advanced our understanding of the metamorphosis of the butterfly. Margarita graciously answered my questions about all aspects of Summer Birds, from research to writing to seeing the the illustrations (by Julie Paschkis) for the very first time.
Anamaria Anderson (AA): How did you first become acquainted with Maria Merian and her work?
Margarita Engle (ME): More than twenty-five years ago, I was an agronomy professor and botanist. I stumbled onto a book of Merian's work in a library's rare book room. I fell in love with her artwork, and her courage as a scientist and explorer.
After learning as much as I could about her life and travels, I wrote a story about her for South American Explorer Magazine. They paid me with a t-shirt showing South America as a butterfly's folded wing, with rivers as veins.
I also tried to write a children's story, but that was something new for me, and after a couple of rejections, I put the manuscript in a drawer, and did not touch it until a couple of years ago. A couple of years ago, while cleaning my desk, I rediscovered it, revised it slightly, and sent it to Reka Simonsen, my editor at Holt. I didn't expect her to accept it, but she did, and her choice of Julie Paschkis as the illustrator was genius.
AA: What were some of the challenges of distilling your scholarly work into picture book format?
ME: I grew up in a room filled with animals. My sister and I were constantly "rescuing" caterpilllars, tadpoles, and other creatures, both large and small. It was easy to retrieve memories of my astonishment as I "discovered" metamorphosis. For this picture book, I really wanted to portray Merian's childhood "aha" moment, that instant when she realized that she should trust her own observations of life cycles, rather than believing the superstitions of adults. It is one of scientific history's most marvelous examples of truly original thinking.
AA: How did the process of writing a picture book compare to writing a verse novel (such as The Firefly Letters; Henry Holt, 2010)?
ME: The picture book experience was intense. This is a characteristic shared with each individual poem in a verse novel. It feels like tunnel vision, or time travel. I basically can't see or hear anything except that one poem, or in this case, Merian's aha moment. Nothing else in the world matters, during the writing process.
AA:Summer Birds is beautifully illustrated by Julie Paschkis (also one of my favorites). What was your reaction when you saw the illustrations for the first time?
ME: They took my breath away! Julie Paschkis planted my little seed of a story, and grew a whole world. She did such a beautiful job of combining Merian's childhood sense of wonder with accurate science, as well as the fantastic medieval superstitions of adults. People have asked me how an illustrator could "compete" with Merian's real artwork, but once they see this book, I am sure they will agree that Paschkis accomplished the impossible.
AA: Do you have favorite details of the art you would like your readers to notice?
ME: I love the way you can peek under the dust jacket, and see an entirely different illustration on the hard cover of the book, in a dramatically contrasting color scheme.
[Another] one of my favorite details is a ship with sails made of butterfly wings. What a beautiful way to convey a child's dream of exploring! That image of an adventurous ship with fragile wings is worthy of Merian's courage as an adult, when she really did sail forth to explore South America's rain forest, at a time when women did not travel.
AA: That is a gorgeous image! Could you tell us a little about your next picture book project?
ME: My next picture book is about wilderness search and rescue dogs. I know this subject from personal experience. My husband is a volunteer K9 handler, with two dogs who search the Sierra Nevada mountains whenever a hiker gets lost. My role is hiding in the forest so the dogs can practice. I've spent many wonderfully quiet hours alone in the woods, waiting to be found.
AA: And your next verse novel?
ME: My next novel in verse is Hurricane Dancers, to be published by Holt this time next year. It's about the first Caribbean pirate shipwreck, and in particular, about the native Cubans who were encountered by the pirate and his hostage, a wounded conquistador.
I already knew that I have ancestors who were pirates, and I was already working on this book when I learned that I carry a genetic marker for Ciboney/Taíno ancestry. I descend from a tribe that has been considered extinct for five centuries. Anyone who has grown up with tales of genocide knows the emotional impact of discovering that there were survivors.
AA: Thank you, Margarita. I can't imagine a more perfect voice for that story, and for this one.
Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian is a beautiful book, one that works wonderfully well both as a biography of a little-known woman naturalist and as an introduction to metamorphosis for young picture book readers and listeners. Highly recommended.
[Nonfiction Monday is at The Miss Rumphius Effect today. Thanks, Tricia!]