Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2009. ISBN-10: 0805088415; ISBN-13: 978-0805088410. 340 p.

Plot Summary
The summer of 1899 is a hot one in Texas. Calpurnia Tate is the only daughter of even children, and to keep cool she spends a lot of time at the river with her grandfather. An avid naturalist, he helps Calpurnia develop a love of nature and the sciences of biology and botany. But Calpurnia, as a girl at the turn of the century, is expected to spend her time learning to cook doing needlework, and learning the other feminine skills she will need before she comes out as a debutante. Can Calpurnia balance her duties as the family's only daughter with her ambition and scientific temperament?

Critical Evaluation
Calpurnia Tate is a delightful character. Kelly does an excellent job at evoking a specific time period, from the excitement surrounding the first telephone and automobile in town to the time-consuming nature of household chores like laundry and cooking. I loved this book, although I was a little disappointed that Calpurnia's questions about how to balance her desires with others' expectations wasn't really answered. Part of the appeal of this story, I think, is that it tries to answer her questions in a realistic way--just because she wants to be a botanist doesn't mean it will really be possible for her in 1899 society, but she's going to try her best to make it happen. Calpurnia's strong voice and determined interests make this story fly by.

Reader’s Annotation
The summer of 1899 is hot in Texas, and Calpurnia Tate spends her time learning about biology and botany from her naturalist grandfather. But as a girl, can Calpurnia balance her scientific curiosity with the expectations of womanly behavior?

Author Information
Jacqueline Kelly was born in New Zealand but raised in Canada. She moved to Texas to attend college in El Paso, then went to Galveston to complete medical school. (It's obvious that her time in Texas intimately influenced the setting and details of Calpurnia Tate). She practiced medicine for many years, but then decided it was time for a career change and attended law school at the University of Texas. After practicing law for a few years, she decided to spend her time writing fiction instead (source). The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is her debut novel, and was a Newbery Honor book.

When asked about her writing process, Kelly shared the following: "This book was inspired by a summer sojourn in my big old 120-year-old farmhouse in Fentress, Texas. With the thermometer almost boiling over, I began to wonder how people stood the heat a hundred years ago with no air conditioning, especially since they had to wear all those clothes. Callie and her entire family sprang to life at that moment. The book was also inspired by the sight of a big yellow grasshopper and a small green grasshopper sunning themselves on one of the window screens. They looked so different that I wondered if they were different species or not. I spent a lot of time trying to figure this out but never could.  Alas, the grasshoppers have refused an interview....I wrote a lot of this novel longhand, sitting on an old cushion on the front steps in Fentress, like Callie making her morning list of creatures" (source).

Historical fiction

Curriculum Ties
History: Early 1900s American life
Science: History of scientific theories, the ways science was practiced 100 years ago

Booktalking Ideas
Describe the setting--first telephone, first car, first time Calpurnia makes her own apple pie. The setting is so different from today that it will interest booktalking listeners.

Reading Level/Interest Age
Amazon says that this book will really appeal to 9-12 year olds, but I think that the language may be a little difficult for younger readers to get through. I feel strongly that this book could appeal to the older teen reader--while Calpurnia is a younger protagonist, her concerns can still resonate strongly with today's teen girls.

Challenge Issues

I included this book because it appeared on the ALA's 2010 Best Books for Young Adults list. It also sounded really interesting in reviews I've read in various places on the Web.


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