Friday, June 12, 2009

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

I recently picked up The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly from the new book section of our public library. I was drawn to the beautiful cover design -- it reminded me of the silhouette pictures my mom and dad used to get of my brother and me. But, if you look at the cover more carefully, you can see all manner of wildlife within the branches and the vines. This picture of a girl with a net surrounded by wildlife sets the tone for the rest of the book.

I loved, loved, loved this book for many reasons:

  • The beautiful cover drew me to Calpurnia right away.
  • This story is very character driven. My two favorite characters are Calpurnia and her grandfather. Calpurnia is a happy young girl who loves nature. Her grandfather is seemingly a crotchety old guy until he and Calpurnia form a relationship of respect based on their mutual interest in all things living.
  • I also love Calpurnia for being her own person in a time in history where women were supposed to be good at cooking, needlework, darning, and all other housewifely things. Instead, Calpurnia was much happier being outdoors in nature, observing different types of plants and animals.
  • The fact that her grandfather owned a very successful pecan company, and then walked away from it all to pursue his own scientific inquiries -- now that's a man to be reckoned with in my opinion.
  • As Callie and her grandfather discover each other through their passion for nature, the reader also learns a lot about scientists along with Callie. The joy of discovering something new, the methodical way you have to pursue an experiment, having the right equipment when you go exploring, respecting nature, recording observations in careful detail -- these are all the things Grandpa teaches Callie in their times together.
  • I love that this is a piece of historical fiction. Having Callie live in this time period - 1899 - enhances the story. We realize just how special Calpurnia is to want different things than most girls.
  • The secondary characters are enjoyable as well. Calpurnia has 6 brothers, and each of them are involved in a small storyline of their own. The stories that are the most enjoyable are the ones when some of the brothers start to like girls -- in fact, three of them like Callie's best friend all at the same time. That plot twist leads to some very funny antics on their part to get the girl's attention.
  • The language in this story is beautiful, and very descriptive. And it is amazing to me how easily this book reads. The reader becomes so immersed in Callie's life, and life in general at the turn of the century, that it becomes very difficult to put this book down.
The about the author flap says that this book is Jacqueline Kelly's first novel. I have to say, she really knocked it out of the ballpark on her first attempt.

It was pointed out to me that this book recently made Fuse#8's mid-year Newbery predictions. I generally love the books she selects; I was just surprised that I had read Calpurnia and loved it myself before hearing her praise for this book. :) The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is the best historical fiction novel I've read since Hattie Big Sky. And it's one of the top 3 books I've read this year.


  1. Hi Karen, thank you so much for your lovely review. My publisher Henry Holt is sending me some extra books to give away online. If you would like one, please contact me privately at and let me know where to send it, and how you would like it inscribed.
    Thanks again,
    Jacqueline Kelly

  2. Hi Karen, thanks for your lovely review of my book, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. My publisher Henry Holt is about to send me some books to give away online. If you would like one, please contact me privately at, and let me know where to send it and how you would like it signed.
    Thanks again,
    Jackie Kelly

  3. I finally finished this book - I agree with you K, it is about the characters and would be helpful to kids in thinking about their passions in life and any "obstacles" that they might think are in their way. Love this book, really love the descriptions of the inventions and the grandfather's reactions to each! This book has so many levels to explore. And to top it all off I am really impressed that the author is a physician and a lawyer and quite the author - lucky for us readers.