These two books—The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly—have been sitting on my daughter’s shelf for a while, and I think that she’s just about outgrown them before she even got to read them. Perhaps she’ll come back to them as an adult, because as a grown-up who enjoys children’s literature and YA, I found these to be super charming. Just maybe not for high schoolers. Middle Grades and teachers and moms.
The first book starts out immediately charming the reader. The setting, the main character, the characters around her, and the set-up: Calpurnia Tate, also known as Callie Vee, is the only daughter (surrounded by brothers) of a prominent, wealthy family (which owns the town’s cotton gin) in a smallish, Texas town. It is 1899 and twelve-year-old Callie feels like she doesn’t fit her life. She accidentally falls into a relationship with her curmudgeonly, live-in grandfather and the discovery that she wants to be a scientist, not a debutante. Each chapter starts with a cleverly chosen quote from Charles Darwin, and the whole book is infused with a lovely optimism about the future of America, science, and technology.
I was on the edge of my seat, partly because I wanted to find out what would happen to Calpurnia and her plant, but also because I was afraid of the ending. Yes, afraid. It seemed to me I was reading a book I wanted to love, but that had a potentially dangerous conclusion. In the end, it almost didn’t have a conclusion, which was disappointing, but perhaps not as disappointing as the ending I feared. You see, Callie Vee develops a disrespect and even contempt of the domestic life and many things that are traditionally feminine (which, since she’s a tween, makes sense. For the omniscient narrator to adopt the same contempt would be a mistake. And I couldn’t quite tell if this was happening). What I wanted to happen was for Calpurnia to come into her own, have hope and possibility and courage and intelligence, but to also come to respect the women around her who did embrace domesticity (her mother, cook, and best friend). Ending the way the first book does, I feel is quite a missed opportunity. The book ended before any of those things could happen–for good or bad–which felt very dangly.
The second book, on the other hand, has less of an overarching plot and less urgency. It’s like vignettes which fans of Calpurnia might enjoy for their own sake. But I would say that it is not a must-read. The first book, though? It’s hard to say. I really enjoyed it and if it had a stronger ending I would unabashedly force it on people. But as it is? I would still recommend it for its historical perspective, its charm, etc. But it doesn’t add much to the modern conversation, until you go beyond what is in the book. So recommend, with one sizable reservation.