This chapter book, which would appeal to children in upper elementary and middle school, is a story of self-discovery experienced by twelve year old Calpurnia Tate, living in Texas at the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth century. Calpurnia’s mother wants to turn her into a young lady and tries to school her in the tasks expected of twelve year old girls, such as cooking, embroidery, knitting and playing piano. However, independent minded Calpurnia’s interests lie elsewhere: in observing the natural world of her Texas environment. She spends her time watching frogs, spiders, grasshoppers and all the other creatures living nearby. Calpurnia’s grandfather has always been for her only a stern but removed presence at the dinner table, who has rarely taken an interest in Calpurnia or her six brothers.
However, when she approaches him with a question of a scientific nature, he begins to take an interest in her, suggesting she read Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, and taking her with him on his many investigative journeys through the woods.
Calpurnia learns to observe things close up, record her observations, note changes in the environment, and most importantly, to engage in serious reflections about the natural world. At a time when the role of a girl on the cusp of womanhood was highly constrained, Calpurnia longs to expand her mind and her horizons through science. When she and her grandfather work toward an important scientific discovery of their own, she not only develops a strong relationship with her grandfather, but also reveals a glimpse of the strength of character that will help her challenge stereotypes and make her way into the twentieth century.
Students reading this book will learn about how different society was during Calpurnia’s time. They will also learn a little bit about Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection. Although most of us can’t travel to the Galapagos Islands to study tortoises and observe how these majestic creatures have adapted to the specific island on which they live, we can observe animals in our own environment and note the different characteristics that animals have developed to help them survive. Check out the squirrels, lizards, frogs, beetles and other critters in your neighborhood. What about them helps them thrive?
If your young reader wants to learn more about natural selection, watch this video: