The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

This book was recommended by Katherine Longshore over at the YA Muses, and there wasn’t a single thing about it I didn’t enjoy. I’m not usually drawn to middle grade novels, which is surprising, because I’ve loved many (Ida B. by Katherine Hannigan is still one of my favorites, along with To Come and Go Like Magic by Katie Pickard Fawcett).

The set-up: Texas, 1899. Calpurnia is eleven years old, has six brothers, her parents, and a gruff grandfather. She lives on a farm/pecan orchard and dodges the chores usually reserved for females. Instead, she’d rather explore. Early on in the book she befriends her grandfather and together they gallivant around the property studying and documenting the natural world.

Main characters’ goals: More than anything, Calpurnia wants to learn about and study nature. This is made difficult by her mother’s increasing pressure for her to learn “womanly” skills such as embroidery, cooking…and whatever else it is women are supposed to do (I don’t actually know because, like Calpurnia, I worked hard to avoid those things). She yearns to go to college so she can continue studying.

My reaction: When her grandfather listed off famous women scientists, I wanted to cry tears of happiness for Calpurnia, because suddenly her dream seemed possible to her, and it was glorious.

Of interest to writers: I know it’s done more in so-called “literary” fiction, but Calpurnia’s struggle is more internal than external. This is hard to do while keeping tension in the story,  but Jacqueline Kelly does it fabulously. Another curiosity is the plot doesn’t seem driven by the conflict. Rather, we experience a year with Calpurnia, and each chapter feeds into the central conflict. But it isn’t that “goal-scene-sequel-new goal” sequence I’ve gotten so used to. The structure is, quite honestly, refreshing.

Bottom line: You want to read this book. You totally do.

Reminds me of: To Come and Go Like Magic by Katie Pickard Fawcett (another book you totally want to read)


  1. Pat · November 7, 2011

    Sounds good. Looking forward to reading it.

    • Beth Hull · November 7, 2011

      And when you do, Pat, we can glow in its brilliance together!

  2. readingisdelicious · November 7, 2011

    I really need to start a Beth Recommends list so I can keep track of all the ones that sound appealing to me.

    • Beth Hull · November 7, 2011

      readingisdelicious, for a small fee I’m willing to set up a special page on this website. Attn. authors: for a larger fee I’m willing to put your book on the list. 😉

  3. Miss Anderson · November 28, 2011

    I’ve heard so many things about this book. Didn’t it win some awards last year? I need to give it another look.

    • Beth Hull · November 28, 2011

      Yes, Miss Anderson, I just verified on Amazon (secondary to Wikipedia as my go-to reference), it’s a 2010 Newbery Honor Book and also won the 2010 Bank Street – Josette Frank Award. If you read it, let me know what you think!

  4. katie Pickard Fawcett · January 28, 2012

    Beth…thanks for the mention of To Come and Go Like Magic — again!

    • Beth Hull · January 29, 2012

      What can I say, Katie, your book made an impression!

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