The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly 

2009. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 338 pages

Genre: Young adult novel, historical fiction

Ages: Grades 5 through 8


It’s 1899 in the small Texas town of Fentress, and it’s extraordinarily hot: “We arose in the dark, hours before sunrise, when there was barely a smidge of indigo along the eastern sky and the rest of the horizon was still pure pitch. We lit our kerosene lamps and carried them before us in the dark like our own tiny wavering suns. There was a full day’s work to be done before noon, when the deadly heat drove everyone back into our big shuttered house nd we lay down in the dim high-ceilinged rooms like sweating victims” (p. 1). In this oppressive atmosphere, eleven-year-old Calpurnia Tate is struggling to become all that a brilliant young woman can be. The problem is, her vision of how that might look is very different from that of her parents, particularly her mother, who hopes Callie will learn to play the piano (It looks hopeless) as well as cook and knit well enough to win ribbons at the local fair. Callie has virtually no interest in domestic projects. She spends as little time in the kitchen as possible, preferring to keep company with her cantankerous grandfather, an avid naturalist. From him, Callie learns that each drop of water from the river is teeming with life, and she meticulously records that and other observations in a secret notebook. Instead of cookbooks, she reads Darwin’s book The Origin of Species, a gift from her grandfather. In his laboratory–a secretive place where not everyone is allowed–Grandfather is brewing up a new liquor from pecans (a more difficult scientific project than one might have supposed). But he and Callie may have another project brewing as well. Could be they have discovered a new species entirely. How exciting is that? The book is extraordinarily well written, with captivating, sophisticated word choice and fluid sentences that are highly readable and beautifully crafted. It brims with detail, and characters are so realistic you feel you know them.

In the Classroom

1. Format. This book is an excellent choice for an after-school book club, though it can also be shared aloud with a small group or the whole class. It runs 28 chapters, each of which takes about 15 minutes to read aloud.

2. Background. As you share the book, talk about how life in 1899 differed from life today–in Texas or anywhere in the U.S. What little clues does the author provide to let us know what life was like at the turn of the last century? If your students know anyone who had parents alive during this time, have them conduct an interview and write a short paragraph about one aspect of life during the late 1800s or early 1900s.

3. Informational Writing. Though we don’t always associate fiction with research, the truth is, a good novel usually requires as much research as an informational text. This particular book brims with topics that invite further exploration. Here are just a few. Before doing any informational writing, review with your students some of the characteristics that define good informational writing according to the Common Core Standards (links to specific traits are ours):

  • A strong and clear main point (IDEAS)
  • Facts, definitions, concrete details, or other carefully chosen information that supports that main point (IDEAS)
  • Logical, clear, inviting organizational structure that guides the reader through the piece (ORG)
  • Thoughtful transitions that connect ideas (ORG)
  • Precise language that helps make the discussion clear (WORD CHOICE)
  • A strong introduction that draws readers into the discussion (ORG)
  • A satisfying conclusion that wraps up the discussion–but leaves a reader thinking (ORG) 

Potential Informational Topics

  • Calpurnia is fascinated with Charles Darwin and his book The Origin of Species. Research Charles Darwin’s life and the book that made him famous. What, in a nutshell, was his premise? How does it link to Callie’s observations about the green and yellow grasshoppers? (See Chapter 1, pages 1 to 17.) Note: The epigraphs that open each chapter are from Darwin’s book. Students might take any given chapter and connect the significance of the epigraph to the theme of that chapter. 
  • Callie longs to be a scientist. Was this an unusual wish for a girl who lived in the early twentieth century? How unusual? What social or cultural obstacles might Calpurnia face in pursuing this goal? How realistic is it that she will achieve her goal?
  • Based on the style, content, and voice of this book, what educated guess (or guesses) would you make about the author’s background? Note: Jacqueline Kelly is a physical and lawyer. Learn more about her at
  • Chapter 15 discusses the cotton harvest so important to the Texas economy at the time this book was written. How did cotton figure in the economy of the U.S. as a whole, and how and why did this change?
  • For students who are familiar with Albert Marrin’s book Flesh & Blood So Cheap (see our most recent post), compare Kelly’s book with Marrin’s in terms of how each deals with women’s rights in the early 20th century. Which book takes the darker view? Or do the two complement each other?
  • In Chapter 25, Calpurnia receives a Christmas gift that she thinks at first is wonderful; then her thinking changes. See if you can find information on The Science of Housewifery–or any similar text. What topics does it cover? How might such a book be received today?
  • What is the meaning of the book’s title, and how is the theme of evolution developed? 

4. Persuasive Writing. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is a highly controversial book–both in its immediate content and in the questions it raises. Your students will likely think of many questions to answer through persuasive writing; we suggest just a few here. Before beginning, you may wish to review some of the Common Core Standards’ characteristics of strong persuasive (opinion) writing (again, links to specific traits are ours):

  • Clear and compelling introduction (ORG)
  • Strong statement of opinion (IDEAS)
  • Easy-to-follow organizational structure (ORG)
  • Logical, well-ordered reasons to support the writer’s opinion (IDEAS, ORG)
  • Clear transitions (ORG)
  • Carefully chosen words that help the reader understand the writer’s point of view (WORD CHOICE)
  • A conclusion that helps the reader sort out details in his/her own mind (ORG)

Potential Persuasive Topics

  • Grandfather Tate is clearly different from other members of the family. Yet Callie is drawn to him very strongly, for reasons she may not fully comprehend at first. Is he a good influence on her? Why?
  • Imagine you are writing a sequel to this novel and that it is set ten years from now, and centers around Calpurnia. What is she doing? What’s the setting? Make a persuasive case to justify your vision of where Calpurnia’s life leads her.
  • Calpurnia’s mother, it could be argued, tries very hard to hold her daughter back. But perhaps she has reasons for wanting Callie to lead a traditional life. Is she justified in any way–or not? Create a persuasive piece that portrays both sides: Callie’s and her mother’s. This might be done through an essay, a dialogue, a mini-drama, or even a series of journal entries in which we as readers get to hear both voices.
  • In Chapter 7, Harry becomes quite smitten with Miss Goodacre, and Callie does her best to undo things. At the end of the chapter, however, she decides to “resign [her] commission as a meddler” (p. 93). Is Callie justified in trying to separate Harry and his girlfriend? Are they a poor match? Why? Should Callie have minded her own business? Why?
  • In Chapter 6, Miss Brown hosts a piano recital–with varying degrees of success. She is hoping that “the parents there would appreciate her hard work in molding their children to value the Finer Things in Life, since [they] were still living, after all, almost on the edge of the Wild Frontier” (p. 71). Why is piano playing so important to people like Miss Brown and Mrs. Tate? Is it a fair representation of “civilization” as they define it? What behaviors or customs represent “civilization” in our current society? And based on those, have we “evolved” as a culture?
  • This book is about the theme of evolution–viewed from several perspectives. Does Calpurnia Tate really evolve throughout the book? What evidence do we have?
  • Just beneath the surface, several of the book’s characters seem afraid–but of different things. Who is the most fearful–and why? Is their fear justified?
  • Imagine this book is going to be made into a film. Cast at least three of the primary characters and make a good argument for each of your choices based on each actor’s style and the nature of the character he or she will need to portray.
  • Some reviewers see this book as comical while others regard it as deadly serious. Which perspective is right, and what is the evidence?

Writing Tip: Whether writing informational or persuasive prose, remind students of the importance of using carefully selected quotations to support their assertions.

Coming up on Gurus . . . Tips for including writing across the curriculum. Please, please visit us again. Bring a friend or two. Host a Gurus party. We are always happy to have you!!