Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

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.


Jacqueline Kelly can write, there's no doubt about it. The prose is lovely, intricate, and challenging, even for the adult reader. This is a book that will require the intended audience to digest the language and the work of art that has been developed.

That said, this story really, really did not do it for me.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate was a very slow moving story with no real problem or resolution; instead, it's a portrait of a girl growing up in small town Texas at the turn of the twentieth century and the challenges she faces with her interest in science and her family and society's pressures for her to be a housewife-in-training. Each chapter is a bit of a different time of year, from spring time and the summer fair to Thanksgiving, Christmas, and finally the new year.

What bothered me the entire time was that this book has been done before, and because there's no compelling story line and no real climax nor action, I don't think this is a memorable read other than for the language aspect. To put it bluntly, I was really bored reading this, and it took me far longer to read than it should have simply because I never felt compelled enough by it to want to read it more.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate certainly screams traditional Newbery for me -- this is the sort of book that adults think that kids should read, even if it really doesn't seem to have a lot of kid appeal. I have a hard time envisioning 10-13 year old girls picking this one up by choice and loving it. I suspect an older audience of teens may find more success with it, but because the main character is 11, they may be turned off. Although the historical accuracy with age and maturity is solid, this will read as dated or strange for current intended audiences, I think. Moreover, this book reminds me a lot of A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly, which is a similar story set in a historical era where females had desires to be something other than what society has determined for them. Although the concept and theme are great, it is a book than languishes on the shelf.

I found the characters to be flat, particularly the ancillary characters. Callie never gave me a reason to like her nor care about her story; in fact, I wished that the story had been told from the perspective of her grandfather, who seemed a heck of a lot more interesting to me. And while the use of Texas war heroes as the names of her brothers was creative, they were all the same character to me.

Like Jennifer mentioned, this wasn't written with the voice of a child. I think that's precisely why I had a hard time figuring this one out. Had this book been written for adults, I think it would find so much more power and popularity. A story from the voice of Callie as an adult reflecting on her childhood could have developed her a lot more and made me care about her whys and hows. But as it is now, I just couldn't. I don't think that an 11-year-old reading this can possibly "get" it in any sense -- they won't have the appreciation for the language nor will they understand the importance of the historical setting nor will they get the importance of the message here. I also have a hard time thinking a lot of 11-year-olds would quite have the knowledge of Darwin and the implications of his findings that DO make this book rich.

Fortunately, for a language lover, there were long periods of just falling in love with Kelly's word weaving. I look forward to seeing what she does in the future, even though Calpurnia Tate is one book I don't think will make any of my personal favorite lists.


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.


  1. haha, we all said the same thing. But it just bothered the two of you more. Nice!

  2. Yea, I felt like mine was a bit redundant!

  3. I kinda want to read this now...

    Maybe this helps explain the weird nostalgia: a review I heard/read said the author had originally written it as adult fiction and the publisher decided to market it towards kids.

  4. You know, that would explain a lot! I think it's a perfectly enjoyable book....for an adult. For an 11 year old, it'll be such a tough sell. I think publishers need to realize just because the protagonist is x-age doesn't mean that's the group that will read it.

  5. If you guys would like to be interviewed on my blog,, please email me at princessashley9@

  6. Eva referenced our post over at her blog. Pretty cool, huh?

    Thanks, Eva!

  7. hi i am 11, & i loved this book, but am on a college reading level. I reccomend this book 4 ne1 who loves books & has a older "maturity age" than "birthday age"
    not Harry potter quality, but a pretty good book

    1. totaly agreed although i think girls would understand an appreciate it more

  8. Whats the climax!!!!
    Whats the falling action!!!!
    What is the resolution!!!
    I need answers!!!


Related Posts with Thumbnails

  © Modified version of The Professional Template by, 2008

Back to TOP