Friday, February 19, 2010

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly: Charles Darwin v. Texas

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. Jacqueline Kelly (2009).
Henry Holt: NY. ISBN:

It is 1899 in Texas, where Calpurnia V. Tate, 12 years old and the only girl in a family with as many children as there are days in a week, begins a scientific journey into the natural world when she starts to take note of the wildlife in her yard. Nobody can tell her why animals behave in certain ways, and she is directed to her gruff and reclusive Granddaddy, who challenges her to figure it out on her own. When she does, he recognizes in her a fellow naturalist at heart. He takes her under his wing, sharing in particular the works of the scandalous Charles Darwin. Meanwhile, as the womanly arts of her era are being forced upon sweet and spunky Callie, she begins to realize that what she wants (to be a scientist when she grows up), and what is expected of her in her own natural world may not add up.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
is an extremely well rounded story, with well-developed, likeable characters in realistic situations . I found myself particularly amused by Granddaddy, a seeming curmudgeon with a heart of gold and wicked sense of humor. Callie Vee herself is totally personable; you can really sympathize with her being the only girl in a family filled with boys who keep falling in love with her friends! Callie Vee’s heartbreaking realization about her probable future is keenly felt, especially knowing that women today have options Callie could only dream of. This book is probably best for middle schoolers, but high schoolers and adults will probably dig it too (especially if you like historical fiction and/or science!).

And now, a few off the cuff thoughts about this book. First, this book gets lots of snaps for having a fabulous, gorgeous, oh-so-pretty cover. Snaps! It features two of my favorites: yellow and silhouettes. I DIG IT.* In fact, the first time I saw it sitting on a bookstore shelf way way back in winter times of ought 8 or ought 9, I thought "that book is BEGGING for a medal to be stuck on it and ruin the cover." AND WASN'T I RIGHT, NEWBURY AWARD RUNNER UP? WASN'T I? I mean, everything about this book screams "A book adults love for kids to read." However, having read it, and definitely having enjoyed it, I'm still struck by the fact that it is just that: a book adults love and earnestly want kids to love too. It touches on some big issues in a safe way, like feminism, equality, science, evolution...a lot of things. But what adults fail to recognize is that it operates on a plateau of nostalgia and perspective...which kids get...but don't totally get...largely because all 12 years of them hasn't lived all that long to have all that many memories. Which is not to say that they don't, but just that in this story, there is a lot of that in the narrators voice. And adults just get it, better than kids. However, it is definitely charming, and I kind of hope it becomes one of those middle school staples, like Tuck Everlasting or Bridge to Terabithia, books that I find feel similar. LASTLY: Granddaddy and his pecan whiskey distillery experiment. LOVE. I'm pretty sure we'd be besties. That is all.

* But not as much as I love the cover of
Marcello in the Real World or The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks (before they released that horrorfest paperback cover that gives me shivers even to think about. POORLY PLAYED.). This is why I think illustrators/artists need to sell more of their illustrations. BECAUSE I WOULD LIKE TO HAVE THEM. I'm looking at you, Mo Willems and estate of Trina Schart Hyman.
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