As the school year starts picking up momentum, the writers at Stacked finally agreed on a title for our next round robin review. We have a lot of YA fiction representation, but our coverage of children's literature is lacking at times. So, we all decided to pick up the highly discussed title, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. We keep hearing possible Newbery talk bandied about when this book is mentioned... so the contributors were intrigued!
Two things really stood out for me after I read this book.
1. The setting - Fentress, Texas seems like a stereotypical little town in the middle of Central Texas. As a former resident of Austin (and a Texas native), I recognized many of the peculiar quirks so integral to Texas living - the prominence of cotton and the pecan tree, the excitement over staying at the Driskill Hotel on Congress Avenue in Austin, the constant reminders of Civil War battles, and the importance of county fairs in rural life. I especially loved the names of the Tates - 5 of the 6 Tate brothers are named after important Texas heroes of independence... and a cursory glance at my own family tree would reveal similar naming tactics for my own forebears. My mother's family was from a small Texas town near Mexia - and again, the Calpurnia's family stories sound very familiar when compared to the folklore of my relatives.
2. The main character - Calpurnia was inquisitive without being precocious. Obedient without being too goody-two shoes. Independent without being impractical. Towards the end, I felt like the author made Calpurnia's distress about being a woman a little too modern in tone, but I suppose it works for a book about the dawning of the 20th century. Calpurnia also seemed very grown-up in her narrative - the book felt like it was written by her, but ten, twenty years in the future, after she attended that "university in Austin." Her voice isn't that of a child.
Kelly got more things right than wrong in this book. She was able to write with an authentic voice, and the reader really fell in love with so many members of the Tate family and Fentress community. I was especially partial to Travis, the tender-hearted younger brother who adored his animals.
But Kelly's talent for writing these smaller tableaux may also be the book's greatest weakness. This is a "small" book; very little actually happens plot-wise over the expanse of time. After reading it, I found it difficult to describe what it's about beyond "Oh, a little girl learns about Darwin and her grandfather in turn of the century Texas." In the end, I think that's okay. We don't always need overly-complicated storylines when the relationships between characters seem so real.
My main opinion about The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate can be expressed as follows: I liked it, but I'm not sure an eleven-year-old would. The book is a beautifully-written, leisurely series of vignettes about young Calpurnia in turn of the twentieth century Texas. Each chapter tells a different story about Calpurnia and her family, and Darwin's ideas form a unifying theme that also functions as a metaphor for Calpurnia's coming of age.
There are two main reasons why I believe the book doesn't really work for its intended age group, and Kelly (my fellow blogger) has touched upon them both. Firstly and most prominently, Calpurnia's voice is that of an adult. Jacqueline Kelly's choice to write the book from the perspective of a grown Calpurnia is a baffling one to me, because it removes the reader from the thick of the emotional eleven-year-old experience. Kelly's voice often comes across as nostalgic, and it's hard for an eleven-year-old reader to feel nostalgic about being eleven. Calpurnia's voice makes the book more suitable for an adult.
Secondly, and almost as importantly, there is no driving force behind the book. The individual stories are endearing and amusing, and Calpurnia's family is lovable and usually interesting (particularly her wonderful, wish-I-were-related-to-him grandfather), but nothing really seems to be at stake here. True, at times we worry that Calpurnia will be relegated to domestic slavery like the other girls of her time, but as a reader I never felt a sense of panic, and there's no push to find out what happens next. As someone who picked up the book knowing it was geared toward pre-teens, I was surprised at this fact, and it took me awhile to get into it as a result. Quite simply, I kept on waiting for something to happen. Once I realized that the book was not really about plot, I was able to enjoy it, but I just think younger kids need something a bit more than flowery prose to keep them interested.
Less importantly, the book is long. I know that eleven-year-olds of this generation have read the great behemoths that are the later Harry Potter books, but they started off by reading the early ones, which are much shorter. The book also seems longer because nothing really happens, and this is a problem for young readers. There's no reason to read another chapter because there is nothing to be resolved - it's just a day in the life.
As Jennifer mentioned, the historical details are delightful, particularly for someone who is a born-and-bred Texan as I am. I learned a bit about my own state's history, and what's more, I enjoyed learning it, unlike when I was force-fed such history in middle school. I do think the secondary characters were well-developed, with the exception of a few of Calpurnia's brothers, and the book had more than a few very funny bits.
The story-within-a-chapter aspect of Calpurnia Tate reminds me a little bit of Little Women, which I loved as a girl. However, even Little Women built toward something at the end and had what could be called a climax or some sort of denouement. Calpurnia Tate just seems to end. This is not to say that it's a bad book. I quite enjoyed it. But I do believe it will have a hard time engaging the tweens.