The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

by Jacqueline Kelly
ages: 10+
First sentence: “By 1899, we had learned to tame the darkness but not the Texas heat.”
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Calpurnia Virginia Tate (Callie Vee for short) is the only daughter of seven children, positioned smack dab in the middle of all those boys. It’s not an enviable position, even though she’s her oldest brother, Harry’s, only pet. It’s made even less enviable because Calpurnia is not a huge fan of anything domestic: sewing, tatting, knitting, cooking… no, she’d much rather be outside.

Then, the summer of 1899, she and her grandfather (who has been living with them all the time) discover each other. Her grandfather is a naturalist of sorts — a founding member of the National Geographic Society and all — and Callie discovers that studying the world around her is what she really wants to do. She spends as much time as possible with her grandfather — in between piano recitals, forced sewing, school, and managing her brothers’ crushes for her best friend — living for and thriving off of the time spent studying and observing.

Of course, since this is 1899 and Texas, Callie couldn’t be allowed (allowed!) to proceed this way: good, proper, well-off girls just didn’t tromp through the underbrush looking at bugs. For me, this was the heart of the novel, this pull for Callie to do what she wanted and not what everyone expected of her:

I clomped through the kitchen on the way to washing up and said to Viola, “How come I have to learn how to sew and cook? Why? Can you tell me that? Can you?

I’ll admit it was a bad time to ask her — she was beating the last lumps out of the gravy — but she paused long enough to look at me with puzzlement, as if I were speaking ancient Greek. “What kind of question is that?” she said, and went back to whisking the gravy in the fragrant, smoking pan.

My Lord, what a dismal response. Was the answer such an ingrained, obvious part of the way we lived that no one stopped to ponder the question itself? If no one around me even understood the question, then it couldn’t be answered. And if it couldn’t be answered, I was doomed to the distaff life of only womanly things. I was depressed right into the ground.

The other things about the novel are true: Callie’s mom is a bit much (though I think I understood where she was coming from), and her father is little more than a cardboard cut-out. But, I adored the brothers — especially J.B., Travis and Harry — and her grandfather more than made up for her parents in character. Callie is, yes, spunky, but she’s more than that: she’s curious and observant, and — the thing that really got to me — doesn’t really want everyone to grow up and change. A girl after my own heart.

I also liked the way Kelly evoked a particular feel; the sense of anticipation, of change that must have accompanied the time period was quite palpable in the book. It’s a historical novel that actually felt like it. Callie was modern, sure, but she was struggling with her modernity against all the traditional values that were around her, and that dichotomy was intriguing.

A good story.

How Not to be Popular

by Jennifer Ziegler
ages: 13+
First sentence: “Oh crap.”

Sugar Magnolia Dempsey — Maggie to everyone but Les and Rosie, her parents — is tired of moving. She’s been moving all her life, mostly because Les and Rosie — second-generation hippies, determined to see the country, Buddhist in philosophy, convinced that family is all they need, and hilarious as characters — can’t seem to settle down. Which is all fine and good, except Maggie had a life — good friends and even a boyfriend — in Portland, and she’s been dragged to Austin, Texas because her mom has enrolled in a massage therapy certification program.

When her boyfriend breaks up with her, via email, three weeks after she left, she decides that the hurt must stop. So. To soothe her wounded heart, and to protect herself from the inevitable move, she decides that what she really needs is to be the opposite of popular. Instead of ingratiating herself into the in-crowd, like she has in the past, she’s going to go the “loser” way: tacky clothes, terrible accessories, the “wrong” friends, the “wrong” crowd.

There are moments of sheer hilarity among the stereotyped high school characters. The popular kids, the Bippys, are mean snobs. The losers, of course, are real and nice and fun to be with. Maggie’s perceptions and observations of high school life are spot-on, even if she’s a bit backward in her thinking. Which is why it all (of course) backfires on her. And she’s left to figure her way out of the mess.

I liked this book, but I think what I liked best about it was hearing M read it first. She shared with me bits and pieces of it — she loved Hank and Frank and Drip and even Jack , saying that they were her crowd. Penny’s love of Mr. Spock cracked her up. As did the fact that Jack wore a tie on his date with Maggie (“Dude, you DON’T wear a tie on a date!”). She even cried a little at the end.

You can’t get a better recommendation than that.

Buy it at: Amazon, Powell’s, or your local independent bookstore.