The Newbery Awards were announced just a couple of weeks ago, and The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
by Jacqueline Kelly was named as a Newbery Honor book. I’d already intended to read it, despite the fact that there is nary a mention of vampires, secret anarchist districts, or, even, romance. However, it is a Young Adult book, it’s historical fiction (set in one of my favorite time periods – just on the cusp of the 20th century), and the protagonist is a girl. So, it had a lot going for it in terms of my ARE (Anticipated Reading Enjoyment and – yes! – I just made up that silly acronym).
Turns out there was a bit of romance, just not the kind of romance I’d grown accustomed to reading about in YA novels. Eleven-year-old Calpurnia – Callie – falls in love plenty in this book. She falls in love with micro-organisms. She falls in love with grasshoppers. With a plant called hairy vetch. With the whole natural world, in fact. And Callie falls in love with her grandfather.
It’s this romance, between granddaughter and grandfather, that is so moving, and reminds me that we find what we need in unexpected places, but we do find it. In her grandfather, an eccentric, intimidating recluse, Callie finds a much-needed teacher. He opens her eyes to the scientific method and to the wonders around her. He gives her the controversial book The Origin of Species by a scientist named Charles Darwin. Callie’s grandfather has lived enough of his own life to see her for who she is, without needing her to fulfill his expectations of her.
Even though she is only eleven, Callie chafes against the constraints placed on girls of her time and, particularly, in her socially important family. Why should she, and not her brothers, have to spend precious hours learning to cook and knit and sew, when there are discoveries to be made with microscope and net? Why should she face the prospect of “coming out,” being shopped around to potential husbands just so she can have a life like her mother has, when she has a mind that longs to puzzle over scientific questions at the University? And, while she has plenty of cause to revolt against the constraints, she feels conflicted because she also loves the instruments of her constraint – loves her mother, loves her home.
In the end, the book seems to me to be about discoveries. Callie lives in a time in which the many important discoveries were an exciting indication of progress and industry. She and her Grandaddy make plenty of discoveries of their own, some scientific and some personal. And Callie’s family – in particular, her mother – is on the verge of discovering Callie, just as I did. Discovering the smart, confused, frustrated, angry, and jubilant girl that she is was a joy for me. Callie is about as “real girl” as it gets.
If I were still teaching 5th grade, I’d read this book to my class. Since I’m not, I’ll simply recommend it for girls in 5th grade or older. Plus, it’d be a really nice addition to my recommendations for mother-daughter book clubs on Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations.
This post also appears on the Girls Leadership Institute Blog.