The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

35904466Lynn: Sometimes you just fall in love with a book and that is the case with The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (Holt, May 2009) for me. I read it under trying circumstances too. I was suffering from a really horrendous case of poison ivy. (Yes, yes, I know about shiny leaves of three but who KNEW that digging up seemingly innocuous runners from my parent’s lawn would result in blisters piled upon blisters?) Anyway, one chapter into Calpurnia and all my miseries faded as I read about that hot Texas summer of 1899. Calpurnia is the only girl in her family, sandwiched between six boisterous boys. Callie Vee is almost twelve years old and an observer. When a series of questions prompts her to try to check out a copy of Darwin’s The Origin of the Species from the library and she is rebuffed, her frustration leads her to approach her gruff grandfather retired from business and now engaged in “experiments in the laboratory” behind the house. Callie and Granddaddy are kindred souls and they spend happy hours observing, recording and even possibly discovering a new species. Gradually Callie realizes this is the world in which she belongs but her mother and society have other ideas about what a young lady of good family should do with her life.

Scenes of Callie’s turn-of-the-century small town are skillfully crafted and Callie’s first-person wryly funny observations of her family are warmly affection. Most notable for me though is the bittersweet ache in Callie’s voice as she struggles to come to terms with her newly realized dreams and the formidable obstacles in her way. The story ends hopefully as Callie is a heroine of great heart and I guarantee she will capture yours.

Cindy: There is so much to love about this book. I finished it days ago but can’t stop thinking about Calpurnia and her family. The writing is gorgeous. Small gems are everywhere. When Calpurnia finds an old hummingbird nest, “fragile and expertly woven, smaller than an eggcup” her grandfather tells her to treasure it, she may never find another one in her whole life. Calpurnia examines it, thinking:

The nest was the most intricately constructed thing, like something built by the fairies in my childhood tales. I almost said so aloud but caught myself in time. Members of the scientific community did not say such things.

I’m a sucker for intergenerational tales and Calpurnia and her grandfather are my new favorite pair. He might be the teacher figure, but he learns as much from his granddaughter as she from him. It’s fun watching his enthusiasm with the new technologies like the telephone (just one in town but it creates quite a stir) and his lusting after an automobile. The large family and assorted other secondary characters are delightfully realized. Each chapter starts with a quote from Darwin that complements the evolution of the Tate family. Callie Vee and grandpa make me think I should start carrying a scientific notebook everywhere with me, and spend a little more time with my nose out of a book and looking carefully at the wonders around me.

The cover art is almost perfect, too. Showcasing the period’s Swiss and German art of intricate paper cutting called Scherenschnitte (shear-n-SNIT- a) is smart. My only complaint? There’s really no place for a shiny award sticker that I hope to see there next January! Perhaps to the left of Calpurnia’s back… If you want to see how this art is done, you can look here to see Swiss paper cutters at work, but you may want to hit the mute button first unless you want to be simultaneously serenaded by a very enthusiastic Swiss yodeler!



About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

5 Comments on "The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly"

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  1. I want to read this! Sounds awesome!

  2.' Ed Spicer says:

    Oh Jen!

    This book is one that you will love. I especially love the part in which Granddaddy is tasting his pecan whiskey attempt and Callie is recording this scientific observation! This is a fabulous year for Darwin!


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