Forgotten Fridays is a monthly feature here where the three of us get together to read an older book and discuss it. There are sometimes spoilers, but we always try our best to avoid them.The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
Series: Calpurnia Tate #1
Published by Square Fish on January 4th 2011
Genres: middle grade, historical
Buy on Amazon
Calpurnia Virginia Tate is eleven years old in 1899 when she wonders why the yellow grasshoppers in her Texas backyard are so much bigger than the green ones.With a little help from her notoriously cantankerous grandfather, an avid naturalist, she figures out that the green grasshoppers are easier to see against the yellow grass, so they are eaten before they can get any larger. As Callie explores the natural world around her, she develops a close relationship with her grandfather, navigates the dangers of living with six brothers, and comes up against just what it means to be a girl at the turn of the century. Debut author Jacqueline Kelly deftly brings Callie and her family to life, capturing a year of growing up with unique sensitivity and a wry wit.
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is a 2010 Newbery Honor Book and the winner of the 2010 Bank Street - Josette Frank Award.
Kara: I am so glad I finally got the chance to read this. It’s been sitting on my shelf for quite some time, and I’ve heard so much about it from different readers. Wendy Darling loves it, I know, and so I was expecting quite a bit. I actually really, really loved it. Funny thing though, I didn’t know it was a historical until right before I started it. This made me kind of become wary because I usually don’t mesh much with historical fiction, but it turns out I needn’t have worried. I adored this book. How about you?
Lyn: I was really happy when you picked this one. I am making it my life goal to read as many ALA award and honor books (Printz, Caldecott, etc etc) so I had this one on my shelf for a while. I was a bit relieved to read a middle grade novel as well. I figured it was going to wind up as light reading, but I was pleasantly wrong. This book, while it was a fast read, was one of the best Caldecott books I have read in a long time. I was worried about the setting (small Texas town and such) but it actually endeared it to my heart, and I ended up really enjoying this book. This was a pleasant little surprise!
Kara: Oh yeah. I was worried about lots of little things. I usually strongly dislike the award winners, but I think this and Jasper Jones are still my faves. I think this has the edge though. It was adorable but also kind of sad because of the gender constraints on Calpurnia. I hated reading that she couldn’t be a scientist but instead had to be a wife. It boiled my blood nearly. And then there was her grandfather who I just fell for completely. Well, mostly their relationship is what I fell for, I think. It was such a beautiful story. And the voice, OMG. That was my favorite part of the book. Being in Calpurnia’s head.
Lyn: I was a bit afraid that I was going to dislike her, because she could be very abrasive and judgemental, but it fit for her character and the time period. The author captured the temperament and attitude of a young girl coming into her own perfectly. I think, at times, that authors are so afraid to write their young girls as brash and rude, but I don’t think I would have liked the book all that much if she had been a push over. Her personality, while it may not have fit into many other stories, was just perfect for this book! It helped set me back in that frame of mind. It has been FOREVER since I was a young girl, and I think a lot of grown women forget what it is like to be young and curious and trying to discover who you are as others are shoving you into a box and defining what you will become before you even know yourself well enough to figure everything out. Also, can I say that I appreciated that the author didn’t totally tear apart all of the domestic skills? How she wove the importance of some of these tasks, such as the knitting, into the story? I thought it was something new when a male figure told her how important such skills are to get by on your own, and that even soldiers in the field would learn how to knit. LOVED IT.
Kara: Good point. I didn’t even think about it that way. I, uh, really loved the feminist viewpoint this presented. Had no idea it was going to be that way, and I loved every second of it. That is so incredibly rare for a middle grade book. I don’t know that I can even think of another book that was so pro-female. Nancy Drew would be close, but not like this and those are pretty old. Some are more feminist than others as well. At any rate, I LOVE reading about strong, independent females. But more than just that, I love reading about all of that PLUS have it be a younger protagonist. I would have loved having this book in my hands at the right age to read it. I think it would have influenced my confidence a TON, you know?
Lyn: There are a lot of things that would have helped me in this novel if I could have read this back at the end of elementary school. I totally agree with you. Never before have I found a book that was so perfect for my surroundings while not beating propaganda down my throat. There was a lot I could identify with in the novel. When I was a young girl, I loved going outside and discovering nature. I was kinda scared of my grandfather, and I think this book would have helped me see past the rough exterior, just like Calpurnia. If nothing else, this book was pro-female, and pro-SCIENCE for females. There were hardly any novels when I was a girl that supported the idea that girls could make a living and a name for themselves without adhering to social standards. That would have blown my mind when I was a girl!
I can’t even point out my one favorite thing, because there was so much that I flat out enjoyed. I will share one thing about this novel that made it one of the best reads I have had for this year. When I was a girl, my grandfather would feed the skunks and the racoons and the cats so that I could look at them. He discussed the animals with me and pointed out how pretty nature was when it came to the outdoors. I remember that he kept a lot of stray cats because we loved kitties, and he did it for us. He was the first person to teach me about respecting your environment. He wasn’t the crazy animal lover that I am, but he was firmly against harming animals or abusing them. He thought animals were one of the greatest things on Earth. There were many times when I started to just cry on the book, because I remember standing by the window with Papa and looking at the turkeys and the deer that lived on the land. He loved talking about them with me, and I loved that we talked about something that was so dear to my heart.
Kara: Awww, I loved that you had such a personal connection to a book that I picked. I can’t say that I had that, but I do understand where you are coming from. I was raised on nature from a very young age. Not by my grandpa or anything, but we spent a lot of time outdoors as a family, and my dad took me fishing all the time. I wish we had hiked more, but my mom is deathly afraid of snakes and they were always afraid of them. I didn’t get to do that til a lot later in life. But they cultivated that with me anyway. My dad bought me a microscope for Christmas and he was always taking me out to collect rocks and arrowheads. So I always loved being outside. That’s probably why I picked this book. I knew the subject matter would interest me. And it did. Obviously I really loved it.
I loved Calpurnia and the way she was written. I really felt that the author managed to capture the voice of an eleven year old. Not once did it feel forced or fake. And one of the things I really thought about while reading was the fact that there was not a villain in this story. How often do you read a book without at least a sort of villain? I guess you could say that it’s her mother that creates the central conflict, but even that is just life stuff. It’s not like she’s a horrible person, she’s just doing what she thinks is best for her daughter even though it’s most likely not. Anyway, from a technical standpoint, I found that fascinating and it came up time and time again in my brain while I was reading.
Lyn: I was so afraid that there was going to be an offending female as the antagonist. I was up in arms for a while, but it was more about, well, the growth and evolution of a girl who doesn’t want to conform. I was really afraid that the mother would be “bad old mom”, but the author was smart enough to show that Callie’s mother was doing what she thought was right. Was it always the best thing? No. But parenting is one of the hardest jobs, ever, and she thought she was giving her daughter the life she didn’t have, and things that were robbed by the war. She really did want what was better for her children, especially her daughter. I could tell that she was concerned about the future of her daughter, not as a ladder rung or a commodity to trade away for status, but there were times when her mother’s concern about the future stabbed my heart. Back then, you really did marry and have kids. That was an age old tradition, especially in the south, and while her mother was destroying little parts of her daughter, I honestly believe she was scared of her future, and tried to provide her some skills that would save her, just in case. Although the book scene at Christmas did make me sob.
It was brilliant and beautiful. And the historical parts, while not wholly accurate, it captured the attitudes of Texas without blatantly pointing out the fallacies of society.
Kara: Yeah, I pretty much agree with what you said. I think she was kind of a lousy mother, though, but she did try to do her best. I just feel like she didn’t know her daughter at all. She didn’t cultivate her intelligence or interests. I know it was really like that, it’s just a very difficult thing for me to read because it was something I had to deal with growing up. Not necessarily in the same way, but my parents weren’t big on college and education because my father worked a trade. No one in my family had ever graduated from college, so I think my parents were just teaching what they knew, but as a child it felt incredibly stifling. All the things I were interested in were pipe dreams to them. They never encouraged me to follow my passions. It’s still something that I have a very difficult time dealing with even today because it has affected the way I live so much. I don’t know–so that just made me really angry, realistic as it was.
So was there anything you didn’t like?
Lyn: Sometimes the book dragged a little in spots, and I wish that the overall attitude towards the domestic skills were not largely negative. I think it would have been very original if the tomboy girl had actually liked cooking or knitting. Sometimes, I believe that stories for girls are afraid to celebrate some domestic life skills, such as sewing or cooking. Girls can like bugs and needlework. I wish I could see more of that in novels for girls. I was an outside girl, but I still liked to color and paint my toenails and cook with my mother. I just had to wash up very, very well. What about you?
Kara: Umm, there was nothing I really disliked. And I personally didn’t think the domestic skills were portrayed as negative, I just think the Calpurnia literally sucked at them so she couldn’t understand why her mother was trying to shove them down her throat. I feel like the book was actually trying to tell girls that they can be what they want, do what they want, but whatever it is, it should be something they are passionate about. Whether it’s baking, bug collecting, or pecan whiskey making, do something with your life that you think is important and cultivates your sense of self. I just think the book wanted girls to break the mold and the constraints set upon them by society and men, hence the feminist point of view that I saw deep in the text. Don’t get me wrong, I see where you are coming from, I just didn’t see it that way. Calpurnia was just a young girl with a strong sense of independence who hated domestic tasks, and I think it was important to show that to keep the voice authentic. Yeah, maybe the whole knitting/tatting part was kind of negative, but I don’t think largely that all domestic tasks were seen as negative. I feel like she looked up to Viola a lot.
Lyn: I completely agree with you on your points. Calpurnia was bullied into a lot of the roles that were forced on her. It wasn’t right to just expect her to want to be a good little housewife. I think I derailed a bit on that part. Let me back up and rephrase: I wish there had been more examples of the gender roles bleeding into one another.
Kara: No, I definitely understand where you are coming from on that. I think maybe if the book hadn’t been historical, it would have been easier to do? But who knows what will happen in the sequel. Maybe the author will manage to make that a possibility.
Lyn: I’m so happy that there is a sequel out now. And yes, even though there are girls who like knitting and catching bugs, there are also girls who just enjoy one thing over the other, period. It does exist. I think sometimes I push a little hard to include everyone, when the story is told from one person in a small town.
Are you going to get the sequel?
Kara: Yeah, definitely. I don’t know when I will get to it, but it’s definitely on the list. Can’t wait to read about Callie’s grandpa again. I just loved the man. I hope he finally manages to age the perfect pecan whiskey. Haha!
How about you?
Lyn: Grandpa was the best. I hope we see even more of him. The bat story touched my heart, and that area of Texas is Bat Country, so it fit in so well.
Yes, I want the sequel! I’m not sure where I’ll squeeze it in, but I think it would be nice to read it while this book was fresh on my mind.
Kara: Honestly, you will probably get to it before me. You’ll have to tell me what you think! What’s your final rating for this book?
Lyn: I am going to go with 4.5 stars!
Kara: Haha, that’s the rating I picked as well. Okay, so it’s your pick next. I think I’m looking forward to Madapple. It sounds like SUCH a weird book. It’s either going to be a hit or a complete miss for me.
Lyn: It sounds like the perfect Autumn book! Until next time!