Top 100 Children’s Novels #66: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
(I will be in a purple froth if this book does not make the top 100!) – Dana Chidiac
Purple froth avoided! This Newbery Honor winner makes its debut on our list this time around. Ignored on the 2010 poll I’m pleased to see it climb quite high this time around.
The description from my review reads, “It’s 1899 and eleven-year-old Calpurnia Tate is the sole and single girl child in a family full of six brothers. She is generally ignored until one day she asks her grandfather a question: Where did the huge yellow grasshoppers that appeared during the unusually hot summer come from? Grandfather, an imposing figure the children usually avoid, merely says that he’s sure she’ll figure it out on her own. Only when she does exactly that does he begin to take an interest in her. Before long Calpurnia finds herself a naturalist in the making. Grandfather teaches her about evolution and the natural world, which is wonderful, but it’s really not the kind of thing a girl of her age and era would learn. Between adventures involving her brothers, her friends, and a whole new species of plant, Calpurnia must come to terms with what she is and what the world expects her to be. Ms. Kelly prefaces each chapter with a quote from Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species.”
The inspiration for the book itself is not difficult to find. In a Q&A with Macmillan Ms. Kelly explained it all in no uncertain terms: “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.”
As for the path to publication, I learned from The Write Stuff that Jacqueline Kelly won the 2002 Manuscript Contest Mainstream Fiction category with the first chapter of this book. Mind you, that was a full seven year gap between winning the contest and the book’s actual publication.
And the sequel? Well, recently Ms. Kelly put the finishing touches on a sequel . . . to The Wind in the Willows. Yep! In an interview with SLJ back in 2009, Ms. Kelly said that it was her favorite book when she was younger. This year on October 30th we shall see her Return to the Willows, illustrated by Clint Young. But after THAT I was told at a recent Macmillan librarian preview that a sequel to Calpurnia is in the works.
PW said, “Kelly’s rich images and setting, believable relationships and a touch of magic take this story far.”
Said SLJ, “Several scenes, including a younger brother’s despair over his turkeys intended for the Thanksgiving table and Callie’s heartache over receiving The Science of Housewifery as a Christmas gift, mix gentle humor and pathos to great effect. The book ends with uncertainty over Callie’s future, but there’s no uncertainty over the achievement of Kelly’s debut novel.”
Ever fond of stars Booklist bestowed one saying, “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.”
Horn Book said, “Kelly, without anachronism, has created a memorable, warm, spirited young woman who’s refreshingly ahead of her time.”
And as Kirkus put it, “Readers will finish this witty, deftly crafted debut novel rooting for “Callie Vee” and wishing they knew what kind of adult she would become.”
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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