Review of "The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate"

Review by Catherine Baty

Kelly, Jacqueline. (2011). The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.

In 1899, 11-year-old Calpurnia spends her summer noting scientific observations in a notebook. Wanting to learn everything about the world around her, she seeks out Charles Darwin’s the Origin of Species. After she is unable to get the book from the library, she discusses her findings with her grandfather, who lends her a copy of the book. All summer she learns more about the field of natural science from her grandfather who is very disappointed that she doesn’t learn about science in school. She becomes slightly disgusted with the nearby river after looking at a bit of water through a microscope, but is assured that the river is perfectly safe.Through the last bit of summer Calpurnia raises what she thinks will become a butterfly, but it becomes a moth and soon it’s back to school. It is decided that Clapurnia is putting too much time into science and not enough into studies more proper for a young lady, like sewing and cooking. At her birthday party, Calpurnia has a rush of inspiration about her future. She will go to university and become a scientist. Christmas comes and she is gifted The Science of Housekeeping by her parents. Heart-broken, Calpurnia realizes that her parents may never see her as a scientist. The book ends on New Year’s Day 1900, when Calpurnia awakes to a world covered in snow.

Calpurnia comes to life in Kelly’s novel. The characters are accurate to their time period, sometimes painfully or infuriatingly so. When her parents discuss her future as a homemaker as though it is planned, or when she is made to study things that a lady ought instead of focusing her free time on scientific pursuits, I was at a loss, but in 1899, nothing less is to be expected. Though the plot is slow at times, her eldest brother’s first love interest was an unnecessarily overlong element, it generally bustles along at an even pace. The connections that were made between scenes in Calpurnia’s life and quotes from The Origin of Species were particularly well done. As they give the reader hints of what to expect in the coming pages, I found myself more curious and wanting to continue reading because of their inclusion. Though the over-arching theme is the coming-of-age of a young girl, I would also say that the theme of learning for learning’s sake is another. No matter what product-of-its-time is put in Calpurnia’s path; sewing, cooking, “deportment”, she knows that she wants to study the world and she will fight to do so, in her own way. I was glad to find that stereotyping was not found in the pages, in its place was an obvious amount of research and grace in writing. My only qualm in the book was the wedging in of “a brand-new drink we’d all heard about, Coco-Cola.” in the chapter that took place at the fair. The words dedicated to it seemed to come with a wink and a nudge that annoyed me. Ultimately though this book is first in a series, it does not leave the reader feeling unsatisfied, though there is room for the volume that follows.

Newbery Honor 2010
ALSC Notable Books 2010
YALSA Best Books for Young Adults 2010

“Throughout this story are the obvious signs of the time and the small-town Texas setting, which will intrigue young readers. I especially like the manner in which the characters speak to one another. The references to the inventions that come about add charm to the story.” – Tricia Grady, Library Media Connection in October 2009

“A charming and inventive story of a child struggling to find her identity at the turn of the 20th century.” – Jennifer Schultz, School Library Journal on May 1, 2009

“Without anachronism, Kelly has created a spirited young woman who’s refreshingly ahead of her time.” – Horn Book Guide on March, 2010

Connect English and Science, have the students write observations of their own throughout the reading of the book. Discuss their observations, what did they see that’s the same? Different? Throughout their observations, students can draw their favorites. After finishing the book, the students can select a single observation and present it to the class as a new discovery. This will also require library research.

Gather with middle grade science books, like:

  • Broom, Jenny, and Katie Scott Animalium ISBN 9781787411647
  • Broom, Jenny, and Katie Scott Botanicum ISBN 9780763689230
  • DK Publishing, Inc. Eyewitness Weather ISBN 9781465451811
  • DK Publishing, Inc. Eyewitness Reptile ISBN 9781465462527

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s