Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 12, 2016

Girls at Thirteen

Plenty of young girls enjoying looking under rocks and don’t mind getting muddy. The daughter of my friend Heather Richard could imagine a happy princess scientist.


But studies show that some girls learn to hide their curiosity, energy, and ambition by the time they turn thirteen or even younger. A new report says that age is seven. Yikes. Was this always so? For centuries, some girls pinned back their hair and lowered their skirts. Some of them simmered. In Finding Wonders, I write how Maria Merian, who grew up in Germany in the 1600’s, hates how “growing up means more rules instead of fewer./She’s supposed to walk slower instead of faster,/look around less instead of more.”

But even in the 1600s or 1800s, not all girls were kept out of science. The three girls in Finding Wonders were encouraged by their fathers to take up their professions, partly because they wanted to share their passion, and partly because they needed practical help that their daughters could provide. Before Darwin and Einstein, science was considered a somewhat suitable pursuit for girls who were good with details and found particular ways to glory in the Creation. But there were limits. Beatrix Potter could draw plants and animals as a girl, but when she wanted to publish scientific papers on mushrooms, doors were shut. As an adult she abandoned detailed drawings of fungi, mosses, and butterfly wings and took up writing and illustrating Peter Rabbit and other tales.



By age thirteen, Maria Merian, Mary Anning, and Maria Mitchell were all engaged in work they’d pursue for their whole lives. At thirteen, Maria Merian painted the life cycle of a caterpillar, at a time when metamorphosis was just beginning to be understood. By thirteen, Mary Anning was the first person to discover an ichthyosaur fossil. And at thirteen, Maria Mitchell was accustomed to helping her father observe the night sky from their Nantucket roof and make sky charts. She also used her gift for mechanics to fix an intricate chronometer, which was used at sea to measure distances. On a recent list of “senior superlatives” for a just-for-fun yearbook at The Horn Book to mark back-to-school, these three girls were chosen for “best science projects.” Absolutely!

You can find out more in Finding Wonders. Many thanks to Irene Latham who quotes three poems at Live Your Poem and proclaims the book “Great for wonder-ers of all ages!” Here’s my carton of author copies, with a green cover peeking under the starry jacket. I hope to see some of you at my book launch at the Odyssey Bookshop, where I’ll talk with Jo Knowles and Ellen Wittlinger,  on September 27 at 6:30!



  1. Great musings and insights, as always Jeannine. Are you familiar with Edith Holden, the English woman who created beautiful nature illustrations? Her “Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady” was a favorite in my 20’s.

    • Thanks, Laurie — yes, those were wonderful art and musings, a blending I love.

  2. Fabulous!!

  3. Those caterpillar watercolors are so beautiful!
    I still enjoy turning over rocks to see what’s happening below. 🙂
    I will be at your book launch in spirit, Jeannine! Congratulations on your latest book baby!!!

    • I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that Beatrix Potter was talented so young — though her parents seemed to have missed that. Nice to imagine you turning over rocks!

  4. I especially appreciated this since I have a 14 year old daughter. Congrats on your book – the cover is gorgeous!

  5. Thank you. I hope your daughter keeps her sense of wonder. And I’m glad to share cover love with you!

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