The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Moderator Gail Gleeson

In my third and final week as guest moderator I would like to discuss the children’s novel The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, a Caldecott Honor book.

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:


luxiii said...

I recently listened to "The Evolution of Calpurnia Tata" during my workouts and somewhere in Calpurnia I found myself as a child exploring the woods around my home and cherishing the adults who loved nature as I did.

Now as a mother, I am determined to encourage my children to explore nature and learn about the world around us through their adventures.

Brooke said...

I read this book over the summer (desperately trying to find a book that would interest my picky fourth grade girls!) and I devoured it! It immediately took me back to my childhood in WV, exploring the woods, the creek, and the pond behind my parent's farm with my two younger brothers. Calpurnia's grandfather sounds like my dear Uncle Warren, who has always been my inspiration. I vividly remembered his stories of being a field biologist with US Fish and Wildlife Service, his wild tales of the Red Wolf project, his crazy accounts of being out in the woods, and thinking he was the coolest guy I have ever known.
I was blessed enough to grow up with space to run, parents that said that if I wasn't filthy dirty and exhausted I simply hadn't played hard enough, and family that was willing to put up with rock collections, bugs in jars, sticks and leaves everywhere, journals galore, and day-long excursions to the deep woods (complete with a packed lunch from Ma!); I am the product of an environmental education, it just didn't have to have a name yet.
As a teacher, an environmental educator, and a future mother, I too am absolutely determined to give my children (my students for now, my own one day!) the same opportunities I had. It is a different world we live in, but it takes adults like my Uncle and my parents to encourage and support children in their own environmental education. It made me who I am today, and I couldn't be more grateful.

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