Tag Archives: middle grade

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate – Jacqueline Kelly

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Calpurnia Virginia Tate is nearly twelve and Fentress, Texas in 1899 isn’t big enough to hold all her questions. Callie Vee is right in the middle of seven children, the only girl, and her rambunctious household gives her some cover to pursue her real interests. No tatting lace and coming out parties in her imagined future. But what is it she really wants to do?

The day Calpurnia discovers that she is a naturalist she also finds her best ally in the grandfather who has retired to putter around his laboratory in an old shed out back. Walter Tate, who amassed a tidy sum innovating cotton gin systems and working the family acreage, lends Callie an original copy of The Origin of the Species, given to him by his longtime correspondent Charles Darwin. And they are off, spending long hours exploring the scrub and the river, examining plants and insects, scribbling field notes. Grandaddy is an accomplished amateur naturalist and he enlists Calpurnia to collect specimens, take notes and engage in scientific inquiry through the long, fiercely hot Texas summer and fall.

Grandaddy was an awe-inspiring figure Callie avoided for most of her life but he turns out to be a respectful mentor and partner-in-crime. She is overcome by a swig of pecan moonshine he is attempting to distill, raises a huge hairy caterpillar they find on a walk but gets more than she bargained for when it hatches, and helps him to discover an odd specimen of vetch that may be botanically significant. When Grandaddy predicts that men will someday travel to the moon, the good folk of Fentress raise their eyebrows but Calpurnia thinks events will prove him right—in about a thousand years.

Calpurnia tells the tale in a wonderful, distinctive voice at once droll, wise beyond her years and full of childlike wonder. She is such a terrific character and this is such a delightful glimpse of history and the dilemmas of a bright young girl at the turn of the last century that it is no surprise the book was a Newbery Honor pick for 2010. There are pet turkeys slated for Thanksgiving dinner and various brothers who keep developing inconvenient crushes on unsuitable young ladies. A piano recital is disastrous enough to win a permanent reprieve from future musical entertainments. Cooking lessons are sticky, gluey and unsuccessful and knitting socks is pure torture.

But the volvox in a drop of pond water under a microscope is a marvel, a telephone line connects Fentress to Austin and the rest of the world one memorable day, and the fair introduces the astonishments of a horseless carriage and a new fizzy drink, Coca Cola. Calpurnia skips in and out of trouble while she worries about how a girl could ever go to the university to become a scientist and rages at the unfairness of corsets and her Christmas book, The Science of Housewifery. You root for her all the way through that long season of discovery and suspect she will find her own clever way to realize her dreams.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is a middle grade book with chapters introduced by epigraphs from Darwin. I would give it to a kid in a heartbeat—after I finished reading it myself. Kelly’s book is a great example of why I love really fine children’s stories, often even better than the jaded and mannered tales aimed at adults.    

 The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate   Jacqueline Kelly  |   Henry Holt and Company  2009

Gifts — Ursula K. Le Guin

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The idea for booklolly appeared as the August hurricane ended. It wasn’t much of a hurricane if you lived in Manhattan–we are pretty immune to weather here. Nothing like those tropical blows that turn life upside down in places like Florida or the Caribbean. To be immersed in a hurricane is electric and exhilarating, not to mention potentially dangerous. But Manhattan is not Marathon or Miami so the hurricane was even less remarkable than the earthquake, although it was interesting to have them in the same week.

Then the gods struck. I was musing on my favorite literary quote —You must change your life–and wondering how under heaven to do that when the thought popped up: Read. Read a book every day. Completely crazy. Perfect though, so I tried it, gratefully setting aside the unrewarding slog through tedious, underpaid work for a faceless client and opening a book. Ursula Le Guin is an old favorite in my library and I counted on Gifts to be a good read. Not disappointed.

It took some time to convince myself that a year-long challenge to read a book a day wasn’t insane, irresponsible and just plain impossible. Actually, it might be impossible. But I can’t ignore it. Reading Ursula Le Guin was fabulous so I made a blog, collected a bunch of books, tried reading a few at one day each, discovered how all-consuming that would be, and decided to do it anyway. Hurricanes and earthquakes will seem like child’s play after a year with 365 books in it. Here is my debut effort with more, much more, to come.

Gifts is positioned as a YA book but, like all of Le Guin’s writing, it is a story for anyone who loves to read. Her own gift is for making worlds in clear, fluid prose and spinning a tale that is readable and thoughtful. The beginning of chapter two seemed like a blessing for this mad venture to read a book every day for a year to change my world.

Le Guin writes in the voice of Orrec, the story’s protagonist:

To see that your life is a story while you’re in the middle of living it may be a help to living it well. It’s unwise, though, to think you know how it’s going to go, or how it’s going to end. That’s to be known only when it’s over.

And even when it’s over, even when it’s somebody else’s life, somebody who lived a hundred years ago, whose story I’ve heard told time and again, while I’m hearing it I hope and fear as if I didn’t know how it would end; and so I live the story and it lives in me.

Orrec lives in the Upland tribes with his brantor father, the ruler of their tribe, and his Lowland mother, a storyteller who came to the Uplands as the spoils of a raid. The people of the Uplands have strange gifts that allow them to summon animals, twist bodies into grotesque shapes, wipe a mind clean as a slate and “unmake” something, or someone, into a lifeless mass. Unmaking is Orrec’s father’s gift and it is passed from father to son, just as a mother’s gift is passed to her daughter.

Gry, the daughter of an animal caller, has the gift but refuses to use it to lure game to the hunt. Instead, she is a powerful animal trainer and Orrec’s best friend. The two explore the boundaries of their hillside world, befriending a stranger who wanders into their lands and telling him tales of the doings of the Upland people. Threats from neighboring tribes are a constant danger and Orrec’s inability to summon his gift imperils his tribe and angers his father. But one day Orrec’s gift bursts forth with terrible consequences and he learns he cannot control it.

To prevent the destruction of everything he loves, Orrec becomes blind – what he cannot see he cannot destroy with a glance. As he discovers how to navigate a world without sight, his mother tells him the tales of her people and Gry teaches a dog to guide him through the forests and trails. But tragedy strikes, ripping open the fabric of ordinary days and forcing Orrec to confront the truth of his life and his real gifts. In the pain of loss Orrec must find the way forward and decide, once and for all, how to use what he has been given.

Gifts is an allegory for a society half-immersed in darkness and the steep costs of turning away from the light. The characters are sympathetic and the details of the world give it heft and shape. It’s hard to read Gifts and not compare its hardscrabble combative culture to the chaos that surrounds us. But the thread of hope that delivers a satisfying end to the adventure is the centrality of story to the plot.

It is our stories that weave our world, that send us into hiding or battle, that summon our gifts. The book was good way to set out on a year’s journey – from a master storyteller, a genuine gift.

Gifts — Ursula K. Le Guin | First Harcourt paperback edition 2006