Friday, September 3, 2010

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

by Jaqueline Kelly

Thumbs Up.

In 1899, Fentress, Texas, Calpurnia Tate is the only girl of the seven Tate children.  The weather is hot and dry.  And things are changing.  In this amusing and heartwarming tale, Jaqueline Kelly shows what it might have been like for a female coming of age at that time.

Calpurnia learns from her grandfather the secrets of the natural world and the new and exciting (and forbidden) theories of Charles Darwin.  She dreams of being a scientist.  She struggles with the fear of not being allowed to pursue such a dream on account of her gender.

Calpurnia must, however, learn to cook and do needlework.  Although brilliant with regard to her studies with Granddaddy, she is an abysmal failure at these homemaking skills.  The author works in several amusing situations highlighting Calpurnia's struggles in this area.

The spirited Calpurnia also learns to accept her oldest, dearest brother's interest in girls other than his only sister.  But she learns this only after an episode of embarrassing and painful interference on her part.

Besides all the life lessons Calpurnia deals with, the overarching conflict in the book is the wait she and Grandfather must endure after having submitted to the Smithsonian for analysis, what they think is an entirely new species of hairy vetch.

Each chapter begins with a quote from Darwin's Origins of Species.  The author then applies the quote, instead of to the natural world, to things going on in Calpurnia's life. 

Although the book follows a Darwinistic theme, it does not preach evolutionary theory.  But it does introduce a few of Darwin's ideas and places the theory of evolution within the context of the lives of ordinary people at the turn of that century.

The book would make an interesting tie-in for a home school family in a unit on evolution, botany, the history of science, or the women's movement.  Although I think boys might appreciate some of the lighthearted moments, the most likely audience is middle school girls.

It was a fun and witty book.  The characters are lifelike and colorful.  The plot is engaging.  It is an entirely enjoyable book from first-time author Jaqueline Kelly.  It is a Caldecott honor recipient.

And as an aside, when reading up on the author I was quite amazed to find that Ms Kelly was first a physician, second a lawyer, and finally, a children's author.  Such accomplishments in anyone would amaze me, but this woman does not appear to be very old.  I am always somewhat awed when I read about people who can accomplish so much in one lifetime!  My hat is off to Ms Kelly, and I hope she has more stories to pull from her proverbial hat.


  1. What is the theme?

  2. Um, good question. Is this for a homework assignment?

  3. what is the theme?? I'm helping my child with a project but I don't have time to read the book!!

  4. I'm sorry that I'm not familiar with the term theme in the sense the teachers use it today. I don't recall ever using that term when I was in school.

    I think the review hits on the main topics. Calpurnia's is growing up. She wants to study, her parents want her to polish her homemaking skills. Evolution is taboo; how do those interested pursue its study? Her brother no longer dotes on Calpurnia, because there are suddenly other women in his life.

    Are these themes? I don't know. Sorry.

    The teacher, however, would probably prefer the ideas that come from the students rather than from a book review on the web. The kids are learning to analyze what they read. They may not do this perfectly, but they will learn to do it better as they work with their teacher's throughout the years, building on the comments the teacher leaves on their papers, learning to be more insightful and to write with more clarity as they mature.

    My husband was a college professor for several years. He could always tell when the information in a paper he was graded was not from the student's own brain.