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)

NiFtY Author: Katie Pickard Fawcett

A few months ago I reviewed Katie Pickard Fawcett’s book To Come and Go Like Magic (click here for the review), and I was delighted when she agreed to an interview on my blog. So without further blather on my part…here’s a truly inspiring interview!

BH: I could be wrong, but To Come and Go Like Magic seems like one of those books that the author just had to write…like you couldn’t not write it. What inspired the story?

KF: My own childhood growing up in Appalachia was the inspiration for the setting, characters, and experiences.  Some years back I read The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and loved the way she told the story in vignettes.  I was excited to write a book about Appalachia in this style with glimpses into the lives of many different characters.

BH: Chili, the main character, longs to see the world. Then she befriends her teacher Miss Matlock, who has traveled extensively. Did you ever have a Miss Matlock in your life?

KF: No.  I didn’t have a teacher who had traveled the world and came back with stories to tell.  I did, however, have several wonderful teachers who read great books to us, encouraged me to write stories, and offered interesting classroom activities.  The trip to Mexico chapter in To Come and Go Like Magic was very similar to a geography activity we did in fifth grade.  Miss Matlock’s travels, her interest in the Monarch butterflies, in hiking in the Andes, and in the rainforests of Central America come from my own experiences.

BH: Another fantastic element of To Come and Go Like Magic is the setting. How much of the story’s setting is based on your imagination, and how much is based on your actual experiences in Appalachia?

KF:  I grew up in Eastern Kentucky so the setting is based entirely on the actual area and the environment, activities, problems, and concerns of the 1970s.  The characters, story, and most of the place names are fictitious.  I kept the name (Cumberland) of the real river.

BH: Your book is told in vignettes, and in some places these vignettes have such flowing language I think of them as prose poems. Was this your intent from the beginning, or did the format emerge as you told the story?

KF:  I love poetry and I enjoy writing “snapshot” pieces, so my writing tends toward the poetic.

BH: Can you tell us about your experience publishing To Come and Go Like Magic?

KF: I sent To Come and Go Like Magic to Random House and got a call and a contract within the month.  Sound too good to be true?  The complete story is a bit longer.  I worked for ten years in the publishing department of an international organization writing pieces for the house journal, summaries of development projects, and publicity pieces, and didn’t have much time to write fiction.  I was also a social worker in Kentucky, worked for a consulting firm in Washington, DC, and spent three years at various jobs at a university.  I majored in psychology, sociology, and education in college.  I also tutor and teach writing workshops and SAT prep on occasion.  I wrote a young adult book several years ago and sent it to Dutton.  They had me do two rewrites and then rejected it.  Ditto for Scholastic.  Then off to Random House.  After the second rewrite, my editor said she was willing to read it one more time.  I figured it wouldn’t fly.  So I asked if I could send her another manuscript I had lying around and she agreed.  That was To Come and Go Like Magic.  I spent about 6 years researching, writing, and revising the first book that got rejected by three big publishers over a period of 3 or 4 years.  I spent about 6 weeks writing To Come and Go. Just goes to show that “write what you know” makes sense.  Research was limited primarily to fact checking the dates for songs and foods and movies mentioned in the book.

BH: That is amazing, and heartening at the same time. I’m not surprised, though – I really get that “inspired” feeling from To Come and Go.

What does your workspace look like?

KF: My preference by far is to work outside and I love my laptop.  I enjoy the flowers and birds and furry critters that visit.  When it’s raining or too cold to be outside I work in my study.  I have a window that looks down to the front garden and three bird feeders – two for the squirrels and one that’s squirrel-proof.  A family of blue jays comes by almost every morning for peanuts.  They often respond to my whistle if they’re in the vicinity.  My study is filled with books and doo dads.  I have a hummingbird mobile above my desk, starfish on the window sill, green plants, and a CD player because I like music in the background while I’m working.

BH: What is your favorite book on the craft of writing?

KF: I have three books that I enjoy opening and reading a chapter or two when the mood strikes.  Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose is entertaining and filled with great humor and wisdom and excerpts from some of the best writers past and present.  On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser has been around since the late 1970s and is still an excellent guide.  Many of these fundamental principles can be applied to fiction as well as nonfiction.   If I had to choose a favorite, however, it would be a little book published in 1996 titled Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life With Words by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge.  This is a marvelous little book filled with many inspiring exercises for getting the creative juices stirring.

BH: Any words on advice to aspiring writers for keeping the hope alive?

KF: I have been writing stories for almost as long as I can remember.  I passed stories around in elementary school and in high school study hall.  It seems that I have always needed to write and, although it can be physically tiring and mentally exhausting at times and rejection is always disappointing, it has never truly felt like work.  Publication is a big plus, but has never been a necessity for me.  The old saying that “it’s only work if you’d rather be doing something else” applies.  I love to write and it’s the passion, I believe, that keeps the hope alive.

BH: Thank you, Katie, for the great interview. I learned from this, and I appreciate your responses, insights, and inspiration.

Studio Audience! For more of Katie Fawcett, and where to order her book, check out the links below.

Links: (On my blog I write about Kentucky, DC, Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador, the Caribbean, books, food, flowers, squirrels, and anything else that strikes me.)

Order from Amazon –

Order from Random House —

To Come and Go Like Magic was a Parents’ Choice Award Winner in the fiction category for Spring 2010

Also nominated on October 9 for the Amelia Bloomer Project Award – an annual booklist of the best feminist books for young readers chosen by the Social Responsibilities Roundtable of the American Library Association

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

Although I read this a couple of months ago, it has stayed with me. The Underneath is so beautifully written, how can it not stay with you? On the surface it is the story of a mother cat, her two kittens, and an old (abused) hound dog who is chained up to a porch in a Louisiana bayou. But it’s also about a mythical snake creature, a family of Native Americans living over a century ago, and the cruel man who is the undeserving owner of the hound.

The “underneath” is the space below the porch, the safe place the mother cat finds to raise her two kittens. Only one curious, adventurous kitten sets into a motion a heart-wrenching story of (a whole bunch of sad stuff) (but ultimately) (redeeming) love.

It’s another one of those books that makes me “feel.” And you know how I feel about those. Highest compliments and praise to the author, but then I need to read some blood-sucking vampire action (with a good dose of either humor or melodrama – both is best) to reaffirm my hope in the world. Sad, isn’t it?

Actually, no, that’s not really true, other than the highest compliments and praise to the author.

**very mild spoiler**

Because this story does reaffirm one’s hope in the world. Maybe not in the middle of the book. The middle has tears, and they are NOT tears of happiness. But hope and love come through in the end, which is more than I can say for Feed. Stupid [ed. Artistic, mind-blowing] book that it is.

But back to my book review. I highly recommend The Underneath. Beautiful, poetic prose and interwoven stories crossing time but all arriving at a single, redemptive space, make the story worth a few tears.

To learn more about Kathi Appelt, visit her website by clicking here.

Ida B by Katherine Hannigan

Ida B’s book comes with a subtitle, which you probably can’t read in that tiny little image, so here’s the whole thing: Ida B…and Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World.

So I’m thinking, Cool. A funny book.

I started crying on page 41 and didn’t really stop until the end.

I don’t particularly enjoy crying. My eyes get all red and swollen, and I have to use a bunch of tissue to mop up snot and tears. It’s ugly.

But I couldn’t stop reading.

Ida B is ten years old. She lives with her parents on their farm, and spends almost all of her free time in the apple orchard, talking to the trees and the stream. She’s so hilarious, and endearing, and it just killed a little bit of my soul when she enters her Black Period and suffers through depression.

Even when she’s depressed, Ida B is amusing – even funny – and I found myself falling in love with her. She’s a cool little kid, so creative, and her strategies for coping with the difficult turns in her life reminded me of being ten. Caught between imagination and reality, the line still isn’t there completely, but you’re starting to realize there’s a difference between the two. I ache for that time. Going through boxes of my childhood things this weekend (post about that later) doesn’t ease the feeling of nostalgia.

It was a great book. I couldn’t put it down (probably because I knew I’d never smile again if I didn’t get to the redeeming end). If you’re one of those people who likes watching sad movies or reading sad books, this is definitely for you. And even if you don’t particularly enjoy, you know, weeping in your spare time, you might like the book anyway.

To Come and Go Like Magic by Katie Pickard Fawcett

So far so good on my contemporary-fantasy-fast. In the past two and a half weeks I’ve read To Come and Go Like Magic, Ida B, and I finally finished The Botany of Desire. [Like whoa on The Botany of Desire.]

Today I review, for your reading pleasure, To Come and Go Like Magic. If you’ve read The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, you’ll know what I mean when I say this: sparkling, poignant vignettes. [Um, I actually haven’t read Cisneros’s book in its entirety, just a couple of vignettes while doing classroom observations. But I plan to read it. Maybe soon.] To Come and Go Like Magic is an entire novel written in sweet, two-to-four page chapters. But they’re not really chapters because they do everything a novelist is not supposed to do when trying to create suspense and keep the reader turning the page. Each vignette has a beginning, middle, and (kiss of death for chapters) an end. There’s a sense of completion, which made each vignette feel like its own poem, its own work of art.

Beautiful writing and the main character’s voice add to the magic in this book. The setting is also unique: Chileda is twelve years old, growing up in the 1970s in a small town in the Appalachian mountains. Her thirst is to see the world, and this thirst conflicts with her micro-society’s expectation that you just don’t leave home.

A suspenseful novel this is not. Piercing, pretty, quiet – yes.

On a total sidenote, is there something about middle grade fiction that requires at least one scene of total and absolute unfair action towards the main character? I’m thinking of the scene here where Chili’s uncle does something so unfair I wanted to reach into the pages and strangle him. A similar thing happens in Ida B, and if you haven’t met the Dursleys in the Harry Potter books, you’re missing out on some prime injustice writing.

My guess is that one of the extremely irritating things about being a middle-grader (ages 9-12) is the discovery that the world isn’t fair, in so many startling ways. And perhaps these novels are working to address that universal, middle-grader issue.

But I need to conclude my actual book review, so: To Come and Go Like Magic is a quiet gem, and a huge turn from my vampire biting, werewolf howling, demon slaying contemporary fantasies. In one word: refreshing.

To read more about To Come and Go Like Magic, check out the Q & A session posted on Katie Pickard Fawcett’s blog.