The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate grabbed my attention immediately. Not only is the cover gorgeous but the early descriptions are lovely:

Our house was separated from the river by a crescent-shaped parcel of five acres of wild, uncleared growth. It would have been an ordeal to push my way through it except that the regular river patrons–dogs, deer, brothers–kept a narrow path beaten down through the treacherous sticker burrs that rose as high as my head and snatched at my hair and pinafore as I folded myself marrow to slide by. When I reached the river, I stripped down to my chemise, floating on my back with my shimmy gently billowing around me in the mild currents, luxuriating in the coolness of the water flowing around me. I was a river cloud, turning gently in the eddies. I looked up at the filmy bags of webworms high above me in the lush canopy of oaks bending over the river. The webworms seemed to mirror me, floating in their own balloons of gauze in the pale turquoise sky (p 3).

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline KellyThis coming of age story follows eleven-year-old Calpurnia, the only daughter of seven Tate children, as her burgeoning friendship with her paternal grandfather opens her mind to the natural world around her and the possibilities therein. But like any women ahead of her time, her evolution meets many obstacles. Kelly takes a timeless subject and excels. From vivid description to the subtle accompaniment of literary tools like alliteration that allows sentences to roll of the tongue, the writing is captivating and beautiful.

If not for an unsettling disconnect, this would be a perfect book. The story is told from the first-person limited point of view – Calpurnia’s. Yet the vocabulary (as evident from my list below) is mature. I don’t know any eleven-year old that wouldn’t have trouble understanding many of the words Calpurnia uses. That Calpurnia would even use them is doubtful, as evident from her difficulty pronouncing ‘prerequisite’ (p 119) and her misspelling of ‘piss’ (p 234). This was my only fault for this otherwise excellent book, even if Hemingway would balk at the vocabulary, I think he would approve of the setting. Of course, just because this is about an eleven-year-old, I don’t believe it belongs in a Children’s Department.

That being said, I could definitely see this book with a Newbery Honor sticker on it.

Here is a list of  vocabulary words used in The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate that your students might need to define prior to reading:

pestiferous (p 3), benzene (p 4), chivvy (p9), torpid (p 11), loiter (p 13), envisaged (p 16), torrid (p 17), excelsior (p 18), dilapidated (p 18), consternation (p 19), curios (p 20), malacca (p 24) , laburnum (p 27), morass (p 30), transom* (p 33), cadge* (p 37), octoroon (p 50), aborning (p 58), dissonant (p 62), pedagogic (p 63), protuberant (p 74), salvo (p 76), ostentatious (p 86), petulant (p 88), interminable* (p 89), bonhmonie (p 91), pargon (p 96), daguerrotype (p 117), codger, prodigious (p 118), prerequisite (p 119), inane* (p 142), uncinate, desiccated (p 160), rank (p 167), deference, ensconced (p 172), expunge (p 179), kowtow (p 185), onerous (p 210), veritable (p 211), dross (p 213), distaff (p 218), tumbrel (p 223), quagmire, efficacious (p 230), detritus (p 231), noxious (p 232), aspics, assiduously (p 237), futile, convivial (p 238), cannily (p 240), pompously, rota (p 242), tetchy (p 245), dyspeptic (p 245), futile (p 260), redolent, tarpaulin (p 271), foofaraw (p 287), insipid, odious (p 288), citadel (p 298), perspicacious (p 321), deckled (p 329), tepid (p 330).

(* signifies a word used more than once)

Have your students find pictures of the following:

pinafore (p 3), swallowtail coat (p 4), hackberry tree (p 10), spool table (p 19), Woolly Caterpillar (p 109), spittoon (p 118), vetch (p 160), cirrus cloud (p 286-87)

Play a game with your students: Statues (p 17), Dominoes (p 118)

Origin of SpeciesDiscussion Questions:

  1. What is the Flat Earth Society (p 13)?
  2. Explain the controversy surrounding Charles Darwin’s Evolution of Species (p 13-14). Has the issue been settled or is it alive today?
  3. Has there ever been a book you wanted that the Library or your parent refused to provide you with? If so, what type of library was it: a school library or public library? What reason did the Librarian or parent give for not having the book? Do you think Calpurnia is treated fairly by the Librarian when she requests a book they do not own (p 14-15)?
  4. While pondering the gender of her pet Petey, Calpurnia remarks, “I wonder why human children weren’t given the option in their grub stage, say up through age five. With everything I had seen, I would definitely choose to be a boy grub (p 115).” Why do you think she would prefer to be a boy. Are there any perks to being a girl?
  5. Calpurnia is treated differently than her brothers by her parents and the rest of the community. In what ways is she treated differently and why? [examples: behaviour expectations (p 145), salary (page 199-200), and Thanksgiving turkey watch (p 264)] How does she react to this treatment? Are girls treated differently then boys today - at school, at home or in the workforce?
  6. While discovering the natural world, Calpurnia has some hiccups, experiences miracles and at times, is completely grossed out. Track her evolution. Would you have enjoyed her experiences? Relate your own experiences with nature.

8 thoughts on “The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

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  3. Juju, an analogy is a resemblance in some particulars between things otherwise unlike. I’m not sure what you are asking by looking for an analogy ‘for this book.’

    You might try to draw comparisons between Calpernia’s evolution and Darwin’s theory of evolution. You might compare Calpurnia’s attempts at pioneering women’s rights with the larger historical movement.

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  5. I ansolutely fell in love with this book. I organize a Girls Book Club for my daughter (11) and pre-read the books. This was such a great book about relationships, botanical science, animals, civil rights, inventors and inventions and more. It’s fabulous. I agree, the vocabulary is a challenge. What a blessed challenge, though. I have had no issues coming up with materials for our crafts and activities for the club discussion. We’ll be making our own “notebooks”, coloring botanical prints and creating our own new species.

    • Hi,
      We are asking our rising 7th graders to read this book and keep notebooks of their experiences of the natural world over the summer. Any ideas from your readers?

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