by Jacqueline Kelly
Henry Holt & co.
The summer of 1899 is hot in Calpurnia Virginia Tate's sleepy Texas town, and there aren't a lot of good ways to stay cool. Her mother has a new wind machine from town, but Callie might just have to resort to stealthily cutting off her hair, one sneaky inch at a time. She also spends a lot time at the river with her notoriously cantankerous grandfather, an avid naturalist. It turns out that every drop of river water is teeming with life - all you have to do is look through a microscope!
As Callie explores the natural world around her, she develops a close relationship with her grandfather, navigates the dangers of living with six brothers, and comes up against just what it means to be a girl at the turn of the century.
First off, I've got to give a big THANK YOU to the Polish Outlander, who sent this to me for Christmas, just because she's fabulous like that. This book boasts a Newbery Honor medal, and having read it I can say it's really no surprise. It has a lot of things going for it. It's a great middle grade read, very fresh and fun (an accomplishment, I think, for a book set over 100 years ago), and I think Calpurnia's voice will appeal to a lot of kids, girls especially.
There's also a great wholesomeness to it, and I have to say, I'm always hesitant to use that word -- it always makes things sound a little too religious-channel-Little-House-on-the-Prairie, as saccharine as you can get. But I don't think that's the case here. It is wholesome, it is something you can share with just about anyone, and even though the topic is evolution, I think even the most conservative of folks would still enjoy this book. It uses the backdrop of scientific discovery and a changing world to impart a sense of youthful wonder.
Calpurnia is smart and precocious, and not a very girly girl, so she's kind of at odds with her era. But the relationship she has with her reclusive scientific grandfather is absolutely perfect, and gives her an outlet for her scientific side. I loved watching their relationship bloom, and watching each grow to be more complete and in touch and alive, through each other. It was lovely.
But there's a balance to this, too, that keeps the book from melting into a puddle of sugar. Calpurnia does live at the turn of the century, which was not the best time to be a free-thinking girl. She's at that time of her life where she's still able to get away with childish things, and scamper off and do as she pleases, but that time is almost over, and people are beginning to take note of her, which in turn makes her realize that her blissful free time is nearly over. People are beginning to want to mold her into a lady, to get her to take interest in the "women's work" of cooking and cleaning and darning and hostessing, and being always, always the proper perfect thing, but never anything true.
I had never classified myself with other girls. I was not of their species; I was different. I had never thought my future would be like theirs. But now I knew this was untrue, that I was exactly like other girls. I was expected to hand over my life to a house, a husband, children. It was intended that I give up my nature studies, my Notebook, my beloved river. There was a wicked point to all the sewing and cooking that they were trying to impress upon me, the tedious lessons I had been spurning and ducking. I went hot and cold all over....My life was forfeit. Why hadn't I seen it? I was trapped. A coyote with her paw in the trap.She has to confront this in bits and pieces throughout the book, and try to find herself and determine if she can break the mold and be the full, thinking person she wants to be, rather than the role she's supposed to be.
Beyond this, though, the wholesomeness and the realistic struggle, the book is just plain fun. Calpurnia is feisty and precocious in the way that some of my favorite characters are. And though she may not be as completely memorable as an Anne, she's certainly in good company with Flavia and Merricat and Cassandra. Her narration is charming and funny, with some very relatable spunk to it. Take this scene, for example, just after Calpurnia has gone to a large library out of town to try to get a copy of Origin of Species:
I bolted for the river. I ripped off my bonnet and pinafore and dress and threw myself into the water, casting terror in the hearts of the local tadpoles and turtles. Good. That lady librarian had ruined my day, and I was determined to ruin someone -- or something -- else's day. I ducked my head under water and let out a long, loud scream, the sound burbling in my ears. I came up for air and did it again. And one more time, just to be thorough. The cooling water gradually soothed me. After all, what was one book to me? Really, it didn't matter. One day I would have all the books in the world, shelves and shelves of them. I would live my life in a tower of books. I would read all day and eat peaches. And if any young knights in armor dared to come calling on their white chargers and plead with me to let down my hair, I would pelt them with peach pits until they went home.Long story short, pick it up. And when you're done with it, share it with a young girl in your life. They need more books like this.
Here's my teaser, in case you missed it: