|Kelly, Jacqueline. 2009. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate Cover. Cover design by April Ward. Cover art by Beth White. From http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/evolution-of-calpurnia-tate-jacqueline-kelly/1100259152?ean=9780312659301|
Kelly, Jacqueline. 2009. THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE. New York: Henry Holt and Company. ISBN: 9780805088410
- PLOT SUMMARY
It’s 1899, the hottest summer 11 year old Calpurnia Virginia Tate, Callie to her family, has ever experienced. Life in the small town of Fentress, Texas seems to crawl to a standstill. But then two life changing events happen. First, Callie begins to observe the natural world around her, the habits and behaviors of the animals on her family’s pecan farm, which leads her to ask her formidable naturalist Granddaddy for help. Second, her mother decides it’s time to teach Callie, the only girl with six rambunctious brothers, the skills necessary to become a proper lady and take her place in society. Callie struggles through her cooking lessons, but thrives under the guidance of her Granddaddy and the exploratory walks they take on the farm. Granddaddy also introduces her to Darwin’s book, THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES, from which Callie learns about the theory of evolution, an idea that is not embraced in turn of the century Texas. As Callie learns about the natural world around her, her understanding of the people and events around her deepens as well.
- CRITICAL ANALYSIS
The narrative is told in first-person from Callie’s humorous and insightful perspective. There is an emphasis on family dynamics; Callie is the only girl out of seven children. Kelly has deftly created unique personalities for each of Callie’s brothers, from Travis, friend to all animals, to five year old J. B., who eagerly crawls into Callie’s lap for a hug. Although her boisterious brothers drive her crazy, it is obvious Callie loves them as much as they love her. This is most evident in Callie’s compassion towards her brother Travis, who must raise the Thanksgiving turkeys but cannot bear the thought of killing and eating them.
Although Kelly does not include any resources or further reading, it is evident that the book is well researched. Callie’s world, turn of the century, post Civil War Texas, is depicted in great detail. Not only are there vivid descriptions of the Tate house and the town itself, but the natural world is brought to life through Callie’s keen powers of observation. All the characters in the book are greatly affected by events of the time, such as the telephone and automobile, and each reacts in a different way. Callie and her Granddaddy are fascinated by the progress of the world, while Callie’s mother and father cling to the traditions that keep their household in order.
The evolution in the title not only refers to Callie’s discovery of the wonders of the natural world around her, but also the evolution of her understanding of the people and events in her world. Callie is forced to learn the cooking and other skills required of a woman of the time and she must adapt to a changing family dynamic as her eldest brother, Harry, begins to court girls. She develops a strong relationship with her grandfather, who teaches her about scientific methods, but this relationship also changes the interactions of her other family members. Each chapter is introduced with a quote from THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES by Charles Darwin that underscores the ideas with whichCallie must come to terms.
Another major theme in this book is Callie’s fervent desire to catapult into the new century, while also wanting to make her conventional and traditional family proud of her. Although Kelly has created a smart, independent protagonist she does not shy away from accurately depicting the expectations of girls in 1899. By the end of the book, Callie realizes that she cannot escape the societal and cultural norms of her world. However, she sees hope in the New Year’s Day snowfall, “The world hadn’t ended. It had just begun.”
Like many great books, THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE includes elements that some readers or parents may find objectionable. First, there is Darwin’s theory of evolution and second, not only does Callie’s mother drink alcohol, but Granddaddy is working on a formula to make pecans into liquor. Each of these elements are an integral part of the story and are approached from a scientific standpoint, however librarians and educators should be prepared to handle potential questions or challenges.
- AWARDS/REVIEW EXCERPT(S)
School Library Journal Best Books of the Year
Judy Lopez Memorial Award Winner
IRA Children’s and Young Adult’s Book Award Winner Intermediate-Fiction
Newbery Medal Honor Book
Josette Frank Award Winner
YALSA Best Books for Young Adults
ASLC ALA Notable Children’s Books
Review from VOICE OF YOUTH ADVOCATES: “The culture and social life of the early twentieth century is reflected in the lives of Calpurnia and her family and community. What is central always to this novel, though, is the close relationship shared by Calpurnia and her grandfather, who are brought together through their interest in observing nature.”
Starred review from BOOKLIST: “By the end, she [Calpurnia] is equally aware of her growing desire to become a scientist and of societal expectations that make her dream seem nearly impossible. Interwoven with the scientific theme are threads of daily life in a large family the bonds with siblings, the conversations overheard, the unspoken understandings and misunderstandings all told with wry humor and a sharp eye for details that bring the characters and the setting to life.”
Starred review in SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: “Callie's confusion and despair over her changing life will resonate with girls who feel different or are outsiders in their own society. Callie is a charming, inquisitive protagonist; a joyous, bright, and thoughtful creation. The conclusion encompasses bewilderment, excitement, and humor as the dawn of a new century approaches.”
Review from PUBLISHERS WEEKLY: “Callie follows her passion for knowledge, coming to realize her family "had their own lives. And now I have mine." Callie's transformation into an adult and her unexpected bravery make for an exciting and enjoyable read. Kelly's rich images and setting, believable relationships and a touch of magic take this story far.”
*After you read a chapter, go back to the beginning of the chapter and read the quote from Darwin’s THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES. How does the quote relate to Callie and her family?
*The book ends with a snow fall that brings in the New Year and the new millennium, 1900. What do you think the snow fall symbolizes for Callie? Do you think that she will continue to study science? Will she give up science to become a proper young lady as her mother wishes? Do you think that she could do both? If so, what kind of difficulties might she encounter?
*The librarian wouldn’t let Callie check out Darwin’s book from the library, why? What do you think the librarian would let Callie check out THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE? Why or why not? This would be a good tie-in with Banned Book Week.
*The following books feature activities for young scientists. Work on one of the activities with the kids and discuss how scientists use observation to answer questions about the natural world, just as Callie and her Granddaddy.
Burns, Loree Griffin. 2012. CITIZEN SCIENTISTS: BE A PART OF SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERY FROM YOUR OWN BACKYARD. Photos by Ellen Harasimowicz. ISBN 9780805090628
Bottone, Frank G. 2001. THE SCIENCE OF LIFE: PROJECTS AND PRINCIPLES FOR BEGINNING BIOLOGISTS. ISBN 978-1556523823
*Non-fiction books about women scientists:
Atkins, Jeannine. 2000. GIRLS WHO LOOKED UNDER ROCKS: THE LIVES OF SIX PIONEERING NATURALISTS. Ill. by Paula Conner. ISBN 978-1584690115
Ebersole, Rene. 2006. GORILLA MOUNTAIN: THE STORY OF WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST AMY VEDDER. ISBN 978-0309095518
O’Connell, Caitlin, & Donna M. Jackson. 2011. THE ELEPHANT SCIENTIST. Ill. by Timothy Rodwell. ISBN 978-0547053448
Ross, Michael Elsohn. 2000. POND WATCHING WITH ANN MORGAN. Ill. by Wendy Smith. ISBN 978-1575053851
Stille, Darlene R. 1995. EXTRAORDINARY WOMEN SCIENTISTS. ISBN 978-0516005850
*Non-fiction books about Charles Darwin and evolution:
Heiligman, Deborah. 2009. CHARLES AND EMMA: THE DARWINS’ LEAP OF FAITH. ISBN 978-0312661045
Lawson, Kristan. 2003. DARWIN AND EVOLUTION FOR KIDS: HIS LIFE AND IDEAS WITH 21 ACTIVITIES. ISBN 978-1556525025
Schanzer, Rosalyn. 2009. WHAT DARWIN SAW: THE JOURNEY THAT CHANGED THE WORLD. ISBN 978-1426303968
Sis, Peter. 2003. THE TREE OF LIFE: CHARLES DARWIN. ISBN 978-0374456283