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Monday, October 19, 2009

Calpurnia Tate

Yes, I know. Everybody and his brother has weighed in on this first novel by Jacqueline Kelly. Set in Texas at the turn of the century, the book is told by an 11-year-old sister with 6 brothers. Her interests are scientific, something she shares with her slightly eccentric grandfather. She's intrigued with Darwin's Origin of the Species. She fills a notebook with observations on her own natural world. She's a likable character, no shrinking violet, who holds her own with those brothers.

Although I don't know a lot about Texas or this time period, I do read historical fiction, and I've read a lot about writing historical fiction. And yet I'm still not sure if this book will appeal to a wide range of young readers. I know I loved it. I'd love to know if actual kids are reading it.

There's a good discussion going on over at the Mock Newbery blog run by the folks at School Library Journal. At least one of the bloggers thinks Calpurnia is too boring to win the Newbery. Scroll down that blog to read about The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, but don't miss some of the other books they're scratching their heads about. I always love the pre-January dither writers, readers and librarians get themselves into over this very prestigious award. Let the Newbery chatter begin!

Here's a passage describing Calpurnia's terror at performing in her piano recital, an event I totally related to (having once fainted dead away at a recital held in a 90+ degree Women's Club hall where my friends and I were performing in the heat of a Mississippi summer):

Miss Brown walked to the edge of the stage...She gave a small speech about this splendid occasion, about Culture making inroads in Caldwell County...and how she hoped the parents there would appreciate her hard work in molding their children to value the Finer Things in Life, since we were still living, after all, almost on the edge of the Wild Frontier. She sat down to more applause, and then we got up, one by one, in varying states of misplaced confidence or paralyzing terror.

That's probably Calpurnia's last musical performance, but she's on a different career path. Her wise grandfather's advice often conflicts with the norms of the day, which can present a dilemma for Calpurnia. When her grandfather tells her it's more important to understand something than to like it, that's a lesson we all could take away.

Lucky for readers, we get to watch her evolution, hear her observations of the times and places around her. Sounds like a winner to me. But I'd still like to talk to an actual reader under the age of 20 who gets this one. I hope there are a lot of them out there, passing the book around, admiring the very appealing book jacket (check out the animals scrolling at the bottom!), noting the differences between Calpurnia's world and their own.

Although by the book's end, I still wasn't completely convinced that Calpurnia wouldn't end up like her mother, with a brood of young Texans and tea parties to plan. And perhaps that was the most realistic part of the story. At that time, in that place, it did seem likely that Calpurnia Tate might not follow her dreams and her grandfather's footsteps, and perhaps that's what Jacqueline Kelly wants us to come away with. Though after reading this very well written and certainly thoroughly researched novel, readers will surely feel if anybody could do it, this heroine could.

1 comment:

Kimberley Griffiths Little said...

Great review, Augusta! I haven't read this one yet and have been wanting to very much, but you certainly bring up some interesting points - especially the curiosity over whether young people are actually reading and enjoying this title. I've wondered that about lots of kid's books over the years. ;-D