On Maria Sibylla Merian, Bedtime Stories, and #MeToo

One of my toddler daughter’s favorite books is This Little Scientist: A Discovery Primer, written by Joan Holub and illustrated by Daniel Roode. When I pre-ordered this cheery little board book earlier this year, I was ecstatic to see just as many women as men, actually more so, within its pages. What I was not expecting was how a children’s book would fill in gaps of my own miseducation and also be affected by the #MeToo movement. All this from simply trying to read my 20-month-old daughter a bedtime story.

Within the book, self-taught naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian, primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall, and NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson share the stage with Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, among others. Truthfully, I did not know much about Maria Sibylla Merian until reading Lucinda her nightly stories. Merian, born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1647, crafted detailed and stunning illustrations of butterfly metamorphosis, the flora and fauna of Surinam, and so much more; her drawings and paintings revolutionized scientific illustration, entomology, zoology, and botany.

Merian was such a trailblazer, that three centuries after her death, a butterfly species, laying unidentified in a drawer at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History since 1981, was recently named after her. The Central American butterfly, Catasticta sibyllae, “is a dramatic black with simple rows of white dots lining its wings and tiny flares of red where the wings join its body,” according to the Florida Museum of Natural History. “Since this is such a distinctive butterfly,” lepidopterist Shinichi Nakahara said, “we wanted to name it after someone who would deserve it.”

While it is wonderful seeing Merian honored and recognized, there are also issues with one of the other scientists featured in This Little Scientist. Beloved astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson’s illustrated caricature stands next to Jane Goodall on the cover of the book. As of publication, de Grasse Tyson has been accused by four women of sexual assault, ranging from drugged rape to unwanted touching.

Reading This Little Scientist is important, so Luci gets to see herself in books, among scientists. I want her to know, from the get-go, that women like Merian, who were “self-taught” because they had to be, crafted rich and intellectually fulfilling lives and work by ignoring naysayers and forging ahead. What I cannot ignore, however, are the conversations we will have about boundaries and consent when Luci is a little bit older, and the sad fact that we will have these conversations sooner than later.