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Given my deep and abiding love for M.T. Anderson’s writing, it’s no surprise that his contribution to SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books is my favorite so far.  In his round, he was forced to choose between Deborah Heiligman’s Charles and EmmaThe Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and Jacqueline Kelly’s .  For the record, I called the match accurately on my bracket, going with my head over my heart.  Whee!  But that takes a back seat to watching a master at work discussing these two fabulous books.  If you’re not already following the Battle of the Books, it’s not too late!  Tuesday is the last match of Round 2, with Round 3 and the Big Kahuna Round left (plus the winner of the undead poll!  My choice is still in the running, but nothing is guaranteed.)

Things that I particularly enjoyed about Anderson’s commentary:

  • Darwin vs. Darwin, or as he puts it: “I’m forced to compare apples to apples: two books about scientific investigation, Darwinism, and large families, both with yellow foolscap covers ornamented with Victorian silhouettes.”  Two books that are, “if not the same species, then at least, er, a case of convergent evolution resulting in paired traits appearing in separate clades.”  What he said.
  • The idea of an Octavian Nothing-shaped topiary.  There should be a whole children’s literature-inspired topiary garden somewhere in the world.
  • He nails what I loved about Calpurnia (as well as what’s potentially problematic – the episodic nature and lack of tension).  I’d forgotten the line about “pitching woo,” a phrase I always associate with Anne (of Green Gables, of course) being outraged at the idea of “pitching and mooning.”
  • The spoiler warnings.  “*** SPOILER *** Charles Darwin died *** END SPOILER AND BOY ARE YOU SORRY YOU MISSED IT ***”
  • His comments on the Darwins’ many children: “After eight pregnancies, I lost track, and started to develop a wearying sense that no sooner did Emma D. stumble out of the borning-room, a new babe delivered into its swaddling clothes, than her husband was lurking in the corridor, crooking a come-hither finger and whispering about the origin of the species.”  Like all great writers, Anderson does that thing of putting into words exactly what you were feeling, but much more articulately.  See, I feel inarticulate just trying to compose that sentence.

Oh, just go read the thing already.  And while you’re at it, don’t miss my other favorite “can’t wait to check in on it every day” event – Fuse #8’s Top 100 Children’s Novels Poll, which is down to #11.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
While I could enumerate the ways in which this book is technically excellent – the language, the character development, the setting, etc. etc., I would rather just gush. Despite having little in common with Calpurnia, I found her extremely satisfying as a character. You share in her triumphs, you feel her pains, you feel the Texas heat and the deliciousness of unmarred snow. You love Granddaddy as much as she does, you want to go for a swim in the river (even though you’re afraid of the microorganisms after seeing them under the microscope), and your knitted socks turn out lumpy. There’s a pleasant old-fashionedness to the story, for those of us who like those things, but Calpurnia’s got the oomph to make this book appealing to kids with more modern sensibilities and a love of the natural world. I didn’t want it to end – in fact, I couldn’t started right over again from the beginning. If this book doesn’t win some sort of award this year, I just might cry. It’s a keeper.

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Last night was my first shift at the adult reference desk, and it was pretty much a breeze since I was being “trained” by one of the reference librarians, and we talked about cookbooks and baking and outdated horrors and crazy patrons and library school in between occasional bouts of “oh, did you know about this resource?”  Can I just say again that I LOVE being “trained” someplace where I already know the collection, the layout, and the staff?  Starting at a whole new library would be so much more intimidating.  Not that it won’t be more intimidating when I’m alone at the desk, but you know what I mean.

Right now I’m reading the absolutely delicious The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly – a perfect summer reading book.  Temperatures in the high 80s feel cool when you read about Texas heat circa 1899 – as Calpurnia puts it in the opening sentence, “By 1899, we had learned to tame the darkness but not the Texas heat.”  The language of the whole book is deliciously rich, the characters entertainingly real, and Calpurnia’s adventures in naturalism are compelling even to me – someone who’s never particularly cared about learning about science or the natural world.  But for kids with an interest in those things, and a fairly strong vocabulary, this would be a dream.

And the book doesn’t take itself too seriously, either, with incidents like Calpurnia describing her rash (which results after some meddling in her oldest brother’s romantic life) as “the hives of hypocrisy.”  These delights more than overcome any doubts about the maturity of Calpurnia’s tone.  Oh, and it makes me want to go for a nice swim in a cold river, microscopic creatures or no.

December 2021

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