A new book written by Hayley Barrett and illustrated by Diana Sudyka (previously) celebrates the life of pioneering 19th century astronomer Maria Mitchell. Mitchell was America’s first professional female astronomer and taught at Vassar College (a single-sex institution at the time). She also used her platform as an internationally renowned scientist to advance women’s rights and abolition. What Miss Mitchell Saw tells the story of Mitchell’s life, geared toward young readers with lush, star-filled illustrations that intermingle celestial shapes and patterns throughout the story’s earthbound elements.
“I immediately was struck by the beauty of Barrett’s writing, and her deep respect for Maria Mitchell was very apparent,” illustrator Diana Sudyka tells Colossal. “It was also important to me is as a manuscript about the power of observation, and a woman in science at a time when there were very few, and even less being recognized for their contributions.” The artist shares that she didn’t know much about Mitchell at the start of the project, but learned through research how Nantucket whaling culture and the Quaker faith shaped Mitchell’s character and point of view.
Sudyka used india ink, gouache, watercolor, and handmade indigo to build the imagery for What Miss Mitchell Saw. The artist works by hand and in full color from the get-go, and uses some digital techniques at the end of the editing process, once the images are ready to be integrated into the book. To complement the artist’s established aesthetic, which naturally meshed with the storyline, Sudyka tells Colossal that she drew inspiration from scrimshaw (decorative and narrative carvings into whale bones by whalers), as well as Rockwell Kent’s illustrations for an edition of Moby Dick. “The biggest challenge for working on this book was simply finding good reference material to make sure I got the look and feel of Nantucket and that time period right,” Sudyka explains.
In addition to her work as a children’s book illustrator, Sudyka has volunteered at the Field Museum of Natural History’s bird lab for over a decade, and is drawn to science and natural history. You can see more of the artist’s work on Instagram and find prints in her online store. What Miss Mitchell Saw was published last month by Simon and Shuster, and is available on Amazon.