by Jacqueline Kelly
340 pages, Henry Holt and Company
Review by S.F. Winser
Science-y kids rock!
It's amazing the parallels between this book and the story-within-a-story from 'The Selected Works of TS Spivet', another book I recently read about kids and curiosity. I won't point out too many of them, lest I ruin either book but the themes of science-love and feminism done as historical-fiction are very broad in both, almost to the point where I regret reading them so close together.
'The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate', however, is more Junior Fiction oriented. There are a few adult concepts, but it's not an adult book in the same way as 'Spivet'. By now, Booksquawk readers should realise that that doesn't mean it lacks depth, or is even less deep than an adult novel. It's just deep in a different way.
'Evolution' won a Newberry Honor, which it deserves for its richness. It's the story of a young girl in 1899, in Texas, who is the only daughter of seven siblings. It's about her relationship with her off-handed and off-putting grandfather, with her growing love for Nature and Science. It's about post-slave-era Southern towns. It's a book about finding your way through competing expectations.
There's actually very little story. Calpurnia makes it through several months of normal life. She deals with the politics of having a cute best friend, a desirable older brother, a mother with expectations. It's diary-like in it's gentle meandering through the events of her life. It's evocative of a time and place. It's deep in its love for knowledge-seeking.
Kelly creates some wonderful characters, all very real and with typically domestic desires, and into the mix throws a science-obsessed old man and his hyper-curious granddaughter and lets them work their way through normal life. There's no real follow-through plot, just happenings that take time. There's just... growth. Evolution. It's more a study of a time, a type of place and the character of Calpurnia.
It's a simple, beautiful and deceptively deep little book. I love that it’s a book set in the South that just accepts evolution as fact – Quotes from Darwin's 'Origin of the Species' act as chapter openers and thematic hints as to the content of the following chapter. Both Calpurnia and her grandfather are great admirers of Darwin. It's nice to puncture the stereotype of Southern good-ol'-boys who do what Preacher says so gently and so well.
When I read YA and Junior Fiction books I always have one eye on to whom will I recommend this book. It's kinda my job. This is one I wouldn't hesitate to jam in the hand of almost anyone. There's nothing nasty, there's some genuinely good writing, there's some nice emotional and thematic depth and it's simply a good read. In fact, because it promotes the idea of girl-scientists (and simple Science) with such love and wonder, I'm probably going to have to restrain myself from forcing it into the hands of random library patrons. It's a book that radiates goodness.