The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate Book Poster Image
Callie gets into science and scrapes in strong sequel.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational value

Among other useful information, readers will learn how to distinguish between the deadly coral snake and the harmless king snake, which appear very similar. As in The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, this sequel is steeped in history and period detail, such as Callie's struggles on the piano with "a new tune called 'The Blue Danube' by Mr. Johann Strauss." Some historically correct details are jarring by today's standards, from the casual way Callie is treated as valueless because she's a girl to her own description of babysitting the "colored children" while their parents work in the fields. Much of the story involves Callie's interest in science, especially the works of Charles Darwin, and her learned grandfather is happy to teach her about everything from barometric pressure and dissection to why the arrival of a strange gull in their town is a dire warning. The Galveston Flood of 1900 affects many characters and their loved ones.

Positive messages

Strong messages about kindness, friendship, family bonds, using your brain, and standing up for yourself. Also the life-changing discovery that earning -- and controlling -- your own money puts you in a much better position to achieve what matters to you. As does developing skills that other people find valuable enough to pay for.

Positive role models & representations

Spirited and bright, 13-year-old Callie is both kindhearted, especially to her younger brothers, and pragmatic, especially when it comes to keeping her brother Travis out of trouble -- which more than once involves some creative fibbing and stealthy disobedience in the course of trying to keep an animal safe. One of her older brothers steals Callie's money and pretty much thinks there's nothing wrong with it because she's just a girl; she steals it back, along with his money, which she returns after she's exposed his deed. Her parents are kindhearted but clueless in their attempts to turn her into something they find acceptable, but her scholarly grandfather and the town veterinarian (who's Jewish and draws nasty remarks from the local anti-Semites) are lifesavers, opening up the world of science to her. Her 17-year-old cousin, displaced by the Galveston Flood, is often mean to Callie but also teaches her valuable skills and life lessons.


Though Callie is fairly philosophical about animals meeting untimely deaths, including friendly farm animals who end up as dinner, sensitive readers may be less so. Animals, including cute innocent ones, fall victim to snakes, predators, and cruel humans who drown puppies, and one animal Travis particularly loves will be shot if he's discovered. The Galveston Flood of 1900 causes much death and destruction; some of the characters then relate what they witnessed, including such scary sights as trees full of rattlesnakes that bite humans seeking refuge, and families vanishing in the raging waters. Many scenes involve dissecting animals and performing veterinary medicine, complete with eruptions of blood and pus and so on.


A character carries on a secret long-distance romance with the young man she loves (against her parents' wishes), elopes with him when she's of age, and marries him.


Lydia Pinkham's tonic, much consumed by Callie's mom, still exists today, as do several related products, but the tonic is not presented as enticing.

Drinking, drugs & smoking

Adult characters drink alcohol and smoke tobacco, and a character drinks champagne when she turns 18. Callie's grandfather keeps trying to distill whiskey from pecans, and the result always tastes awful. Callie's mom is constantly nipping Lydia Pinkham's tonic, a highly alcoholic patent medicine for "female complaints." When her cousin falls ill, the doctor prescribes cocaine in the morning and laudanum at night.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate continues the adventures of the smart, spirited girl introduced in Newbery Honor winner The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. Here, Callie's turning 13 in rural Texas in 1900. Even as she's discovering the joys of science in her studies with her cranky, learned grandfather and dreaming of an education, the walls are closing in on her: She's just a girl, and the best she can look forward to is being a proper, wealthy matron like her mother. Meanwhile, she's kept busy looking out for her younger brother, Travis, and the steady stream of animals he "rescues." Callie's an irresistible protagonist as she struggles to make her dreams real against the odds; her kind heart and clever thinking, as well as her sharp wits, serve her and her loved ones well. There's a lot of scientific detail, including lots of gross moments involving animal bodily fluids and dissection. Tenderhearted readers may have trouble with the frequent deaths of animals. Parents might want to discuss period details that are historically accurate but jarring by today's standards, such as references to "colored" people, anti-Semitic characters, and outmoded gender stereotypes.

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What's the story?

As Calpurnia Virginia Tate, aka Callie Vee, turns 13 in 1900, she revels in studying science with her cantankerous grandfather, with whom she codiscovered a new plant species in The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. But a life of science doesn't seem to be in her future: Although her family is rich and her six brothers can pursue their educations and follow their dreams, Callie can't. Destined from her unfortunate birth as a female for life as a Texas debutante and wealthy matron, she's furious as she feels the doors of the gilded cage closing in on her in a world where the fact that she's smarter and harder-working than her brothers doesn't matter a bit. As she tries to keep her tenderhearted brother Travis -- and his never-ending parade of rescued animals -- out of trouble, a flood 200 miles away brings to town two people who, in different ways, open up new worlds to Callie and give her valuable tools for living her own life.

Is it any good?

Jacqueline Kelly's follow-up to The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate works well as a standalone story, but readers of the first volume will find THE CURIOUS WORLD OF CALPURNIA TATE a happy reunion. Old fans and new will be on the edges of their seats as Callie and her beloved brother land in numerous scrapes and fib, finagle, and charm their way out of quite a few others -- almost always with a kindhearted motive. For those who aren't as entranced with scientific pursuits as Callie, some of the experiments, dissections, and research might get old, but the detail is great for kids who love to investigate nature or think they might like to be veterinarians.

Though the story has an obvious appeal to smart, strong girls -- especially those who think they're not being taken seriously -- Callie's plight and creative thinking will resonate with any kid who feels imprisoned by the expectations of others. What spirited kid's blood would not boil at this exchange, as Callie's father gives her a five-dollar gold piece for Christmas:

"I thought of all the scientific equipment I could buy, maybe even a third-hand microscope of my own.

"'Save it now and spend it wisely in the future,' he said. 'perhaps on your hope chest and your trousseau.'"

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about people who grew up in an era when your external qualities -- your skin color and your gender, for example -- determined what your life would be like. How would you fit into a society like that? Do you think we still have these issues today?

  • Do you like stories about people who lived in other times? Which ones do you like best? Do you think this is a good way to learn about history?

  • Do you have a dream that's going to be challenging to achieve? Does Callie's story give you any ideas about how you might make it happen?

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For kids who love strong female heroes and historical fiction

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