Friday, September 9, 2016

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly. 2009. Henry Holt and Co. 352 pages. Ages 9-12. Newbery Honor Book.

The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly. 2015. Henry Holt and Co. 320 pages. Ages 9-12.


Eleven-year old Calpurnia Tate is a budding scientist. She first observes a kind of grasshopper she's never noticed before, that is larger and more yellow than the smaller emerald green grasshoppers she's familiar with. She asks her grandfather, who has become a naturalist after retiring from the family cotton business, about it, but he tells her to figure it out for herself. She does, and that spawns not only her interest in nature and science, but also a special relationship between her and her grandfather, who gives her copies of Darwin's Origin of Species and later, The Voyage of the Beagle. 

Her interest in science and nature continues to grow under her grandfather's tutelage and she even discovers what might be a new plant species. She dreams of going to college and getting a degree, thinking she might even like to be a veterinarian after gradually worming her way into becoming the new town animal doctor's assistant. She has a knack for it, and is not squeamish about blood and guts, unlike her younger brother Travis, the animal lover known for taking in all kinds of orphaned and stray animals, but who can't stand the sight of blood.  

Unfortunately for Calpurnia, it is 1900, and girls are expected to learn to cook, sew, clean, and run a household in preparation for being wives and mothers, not become scientists. The older she gets, the less time she has to spend with her grandfather and the more time her mother makes her spend on the "womanly arts". She becomes increasingly aware of how her parents treat her and her six brothers differently, and begins to realize that females are not full citizens and do not have the freedom or choices that men do.

My Thoughts 
I'm going to have to be up front about my possible bias here, as historical fiction is one of my favorite genres and my first career was as a scientist. As a kid I was much like Calpurnia, always exploring the outdoors and doing "experiments", and I can relate to her struggle against her parents' limited expectations of her based on gender. I also read several of Darwin's works in high school and college, and I own a copy of Origin of Species.

So in light of that, it's no surprise that I loved these books; I felt like they were written for my 10-year old self. I thought they were well-written and that the main characters were well-developed, particularly Calpurnia, her grandfather, and younger brother Travis. I loved seeing the relationship develop between Calpurnia and her grandfather as they shared their love of nature and how he nurtured her inquisitiveness and intelligence. Along the way there are plenty of dramatic, humorous, and touching moments for Calpurnia and her family. I also really like how each chapter begins with a quote, from Darwin's Origin of Species in the first book, and Voyage of the Beagle in the second.

I think this story could appeal to a number of readers: those who enjoy or are at least open to historical fiction, those who are interested in nature and science, those who also struggle against their parents' and/or society's expectations of them, and other girls surrounded by brothers. Readers who enjoyed Jennifer Holm's Our Only May Amelia, which is set in the same time period and has a protagonist that shares Calpurnia's struggle with gender roles and having many brothers, or Amy Timberlake's One Came Home (set slightly earlier and is a mystery/adventure, but also has a female main character that doesn't fit into the typical gender roles of the time and incorporates a little science) would likely enjoy Calpurnia's story. Some parents might object to the emphasis on Darwin and his theories of evolution.

My only complaint is that even at the end of the second book, we still don't know what became of Calpurnia. Was she ever able to follow her dreams of a higher education and scientific pursuits, or did she give in to the weight of her parents' and society's expectations and allow herself to be married off, as her parents seem to have in mind? I sincerely hope there will be another book or books to answer that question, but I was not able to determine if that was in the works or not.

Review By My Nine-Year Old Niece 
"This is a story about an 11 year-old girl who doesn't like piano or knitting, but likes science and nature. I like that Callie Vee doesn't want to be a debutante. I also think it's funny how Mr. Grassel, the postman, acts when Callie Vee [says], "I need a stamp." Another thing I like about her is that she loves nature.

What I didn't like about this was that there was hardly any action. That's all.

I would recommend The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate to girls from 9-15."

Other Books By This Author 
Jacqueline Kelly also wrote a sequel to Kenneth Grahame's beloved classic Wind In The Willows, entitled Return To The Willows and beautifully illustrated by Clint Young. She is also incorporating the characters of Calpurnia and Travis into a new series of beginning chapter books for younger readers (ages 7-10) called Calpurnia Tate, Girl Vet, with more of their adventures caring for injured or orphaned animals. The first book, Skunked!, is due to be released on October 4, 2016, with Counting Sheep to follow on April 4, 2017.

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