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The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

Newbery Honor book about a smart Southern tomboy in 1899.
Popular with kids

What parents need to know

Educational value

This story of the South in 1899 includes plenty of historical details. Readers will learn a great deal about the period, including the limitations of an intelligent girl during the period. Each chapter begins with a quote from Darwin's The Origin of the Species, and readers will pick up some science lessons along with Callie.

Positive messages

Readers will be inspired by Callie's attempt to pursue science despite her mother's attempts to limit her to more traditionally female pursuits. 

Positive role models

Readers will find it easy to relate to Callie, a smart girl who attempts to do the thing she loves despite what society -- and her mother -- think is proper. She recognizes the injustice and points it out.


Brief report of a "quadroon" servant who tried to pass as white and was pitchforked to death; description of a deadly Civil War battle.


Reference to animals on the farm mating; Calpurnia's 17-year-old brother courts a young woman; three of her younger brothers "fall in love" with her best friend, but it's all very innocent.


Calpurnia's grandfather says "hell" and "damn" once or twice.

Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

All references are used in service of setting the scenes and are not gratuitous. Calpurnia's grandfather drinks whiskey and port daily, but he's not portrayed as drunken. He also smokes cigars. He offers Calpurnia whiskey on two occasions; she tries it and dislikes it. Brief mention of other adults drinking port and other alcohol at a celebration. Calpurnia's mother often takes a "tonic" for headaches that's later revealed to contain 20 percent alcohol.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that since this Newbery Honor book is set in 1899, readers will learn a great deal about the period, including the limitations placed upon an intelligent girl. They'll find it easy to root for -- and relate to -- Callie, who attempts to do the thing she loves despite what society -- and her mother -- think is proper. This is a wonderful book about coming of age in a fascinating time, and that's what will leave an impression on tween and teen readers.

What's the story?

In the summer 1899, Calpurnia Tate is almost 12 years old. "Callie" lives with six brothers, her parents, her grandfather (a founding member of the National Geographic Society), and numerous household staff on a Texas cotton plantation. During this long hot summer, Callie begins a new friendship with her grandfather when he discovers her interest in the natural world. Over the next few months, Callie has to deal with three of her brothers falling in "love" with her best friend, cooking and sewing lessons, installation of the first telephone in town history, and Darwin's theory of evolution. Callie may have the benefits of an upper-crust family and being the only girl among so many brothers, but she also faces the universal truth of growing up: Everything is changing.

Is it any good?


It's easy to see why this coming-of-age story earned a Newbery Honor: Readers will find plenty to like. This is a fun historical novel jam-packed with rich details and events. Readers will get a vivid sense of rural Southern life as the children catch fireflies, eat their pet turkeys for Thanksgiving, and enter the county fair. And in Callie they'll find a smart role model who tries to follow her heart, despite gender expectations. Each chapter begins with a quote from Darwin's The Origin of the Species, which mirrors Callie's own longing for the evolution of the roles of women.

Tweens and teens (and their parents) might find it fun to explore how their childhoods differ from Callie's -- both in terms of the technologies being developed and what expectations society has for boys and girls.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about gender roles. How were Callie's mother's expectations different for her than for her brothers? Would things be better for Callie today?

  • Parents may also want to ask their kids what they think would happen next to Callie. If you were to write a sequel, what do you think would be in it?

Book details

Author:Jacqueline Kelly
Genre:Historical Fiction
Topics:Great girl role models, History, Misfits and underdogs
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Henry Holt & Company, Inc.
Publication date:May 12, 2009
Number of pages:352
Publisher's recommended age(s):9 - 12
Award:Newbery Medal and Honors

This review of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate was written by

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Parent of a 6 and 8 year old Written bytonyasrb November 28, 2010

Great read for girls

The story in based in 1899 Texas. The main character, Calpurnia, develops an interest in science as she gets to know her grandfather more closely. At the same time, her mother pushes her to learn the domestic skills necessary to catch a husband instead of further pursuing an education. I recommend this book for kids over the age of 10 simply because there are a few references to animal reproduction. Calpurnia briefly mentions that she has seen dogs mating and a man recommends that her brother rent out his rabbit for stud services.
Kid, 10 years old February 6, 2010

A fun read for girls.

This was great, but the author 'authenticates' it by using the words 'Quadroon' and 'Octaroon' which I don't think kids in the modern world will world will know and shouldn't go around using as they are impolite (besides if they don't know the meaning, they shouldn't use a word anyways). Also people who aren't doctors might find the grandpa describing the battlefield a little gross. But, overall this was really fun and educational. The girl (Calpurnia) is a little like Darwin. She goes around collecting things, and trying to figure out what they mean with her grandpa, which really displeases her mom. Calpurnia is a very strong character whom we can learn a lot from, even though she is not like most young woman at the time, she does do some of the 'proper' things for a young lady - on her mother's insistence. The relation between Calpurnia and her grandpa is great, but there is not much of a relationship between any other characters. I believe this is fine for kids 10+, IF they can cope with the reading and vocabulary. Also, girls are more likely to enjoy this than boys as the story centers around Calpurnia.
What other families should know
Educational value
Great messages
Great role models
Too much swearing
Kid, 10 years old April 1, 2010

LOVED IT! Perfect for girls, but guys... well, not so much.

Great book! It is all about science, family, and a girl around age 11! I would definitely recommend this book for any person around age 11. Perfect for girls, but guys might get bored. If the reader can understand the vocabulary, I think they should read it! I loved it!!!
What other families should know
Great messages
Great role models