May 17, 2017

Mary Anning's Curiosity

Written by Monica Kulling
Illustrated by Melissa Castrillón
Groundwood Books
116 pp.
Ages 7-12
May 2017

I could wait until May 21st, the 218th anniversary of Mary Anning’s birth, but that’s on the weekend and I don’t want to wait.  This extraordinary woman who began life as a miracle girl, surviving a bolt of lightning that killed three women including the woman who held her, has waited long enough, being the woman whom American scientist and writer Stephen Jay Gould declared to be “probably the most important unsung (or inadequately sung) collecting force in the history of paleontology.” (1)

From a very young age, Mary Anning had traipsed the beaches and cliffs of her home in Lyme Regis with her father Richard and older brother Joe.  They would scour the Black Ven cliffs of limestone, shale and clay for treasures called curiosities that they could clean and sell, supplementing her father’s carpentry income. Mary loved going hunting for ammos (ammonites), thunderbolts (belemnites), “devil’s toenails” (Gryphaea) and all shells but she always hoped to find the giant crocodile (a misnomer) of local lore.  After a cliff fall in 1807 prevents her father from ever fossil hunting again, the family’s debts begin to accumulate. Mary who’d always been sneaking out to go hunting decides to leave school in 1810, at age twelve, and continue excavating and selling curiosities, as well as doing odd jobs whenever possible.

And then Joseph, after his work as an upholsterer’s apprentice, discovers the massive eye socket fossil of the giant croc.  But it’s Mary who must excavate it and the rest of the skull while keeping their fossil-seller competitor Captain Cury at bay.  With tireless devotion to her task, and the support of the wealthy and educated fossil collector Miss Elizabeth Philpot, Mary locates the long snout with jagged teeth and rest of the skull which are removed with the stone to the privacy and indoor warmth of her house for cleaning and preparation.  By putting the skull on display, Mary is able to help earn additional funds for the family while pursuing the remainder of the great animal’s fossilized body.

Though Mary Anning (1799-1847) is a part of history, the story that Monica Kulling tells is a creative retelling of her early life and first major discovery, one which helped define her as one the world’s greatest fossilists.   As was the case for those living to pay rent and food and the uncertainty of health (her mother loses many of her babies), Mary Anning’s beginnings were shaky.  But the lightning strike that she survived miraculously heralded a new beginning, apparently taking her from dull child to one with brilliant curiosity and fever for learning.  Like the curiosities she hunted on the beaches and cliffs of Dorset, Mary Anning was a marvel, she of determination and  inquisitiveness, both which served her and her family well.

As with her earlier picture book biographies, Monica Kulling has highlighted a significant figure of original thought and action whom we should know but probably don’t.  With Mary Anning’s Curiosity, Monica Kulling has demonstrated that she too can be innovative, now extending her biographic storytelling into chapter books, helping young readers delve deeper into lives of significant individuals whose stories need to be told to understand our worlds today.  And Monica Kulling is the storyteller to do so, giving life to lives lived in different times and places so that they might be truly appreciated.

(1) From  Purcell, Rosamond Wolff and Gould, Stephen Jay. Finders, Keepers: Eight Collectors (1992). W. W. Norton & Company. 155 pp.

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