The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly

Evolution of Calpurnia Tate cover
Callie Tate lives on a wealthy farm of pecan trees and too many brothers in turn-of-the-century Texas. One day she gathers the courage to ask her intimidating grandfather about the two different kinds of grasshoppers she sees in the fields, and he tells her to figure it out herself. From her eureka moment — they’re the same species, the yellower of which survived to get older and fatter because they blended in better with the drought grass — she and Granddaddy are inseparable students of scientific inquiry.

Evolution was a Newbery Honor book this year, and it sure does have “Newbery” all over it, with the cute 19th-century pinafore and the spunky-yet-wholesome heroine who loves science and her granddaddy. All of which is to say, I adored it. It might seem too “good for you” for some kids, though.

It’s episodic and slice-of-life, without much in the way of overarching plot. Calpurnia is yet another “tomboy” who bravely strives to shrug off the limitations her society places on women. If actual history had had as many of these girls as YA fiction does, we would have won the vote a hell of a lot sooner. (Can we get a novel about a 19th-century girl who loves needlework and looks forward to marrying a boy from a good family? Didn’t those girls have interesting lives sometimes, too? Especially since, quite frankly, most of my students are more likely to be the modern equivalent of this girl than of Calpurnia or Caddie Woodlawn.)

I loved her relationship with Granddaddy. I loved that he wasn’t secretly a sweet doting grandfather just waiting to emerge; he was in fact as hopelessly absorbed with his own interests as he looked, but Callie fit right into that single-mindedness. (The scenes in which he forgets that she’s a kid and wants to share a celebratory shot of liquor with her? Priceless.)

And I loved the promise of a new millennium — kids might be frustrated by the lack of resolution to Callie’s problems (I sure would have been), but I know what happens after that snowy Jan. 1, 1900. The telephones and automobiles that are so novel in Callie’s town take over the world. The 19th Amendment passes in Callie’s 32nd year. More and more women go to university, become scientists. I like to think Calpurnia V. Tate is one of them.

Also reviewed at: A Fuse #8 Production and onehandclapping.

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One Response to The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly

  1. Mary says:

    I loved this book too, although I was somewhat frustrated with the lack of resolution at the end.

    But also – there are tons of books out there about girls who just want to do needlework and get married – they just haven’t been written recently. Jane Austen’s books, or Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott (and its sequel, Rose in Bloom), or Anne of Green Gables, would fit the bill, I think. The heroines in these books are awesome, but they’re also not unhappy with their role in life as 18th-19th century women. And despite being written in a different era and using slightly outdated language, I think they would appeal to the same kids who would read The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.

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