Thursday, March 11, 2010


Hi Allyson and Heather,

I love epigraphs and literary references in the context of a novel. Maybe it’s the bargain hunter in me—I feel like I’m getting added value—being introduced to the thinking, vision, or insight of one writer through the eyes of another one.


Most often, if there’s an epigraph, there’s only one, at the beginning of a book. So I was thrilled to find epigraphs at the beginning of every single chapter of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. All the epigraphs are from Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species and reading them inspired me not only reserve a copy of Darwin’s book at the library, but also got me wondering why Jacqueline Kelly selected each epigraph and how the epigraphs functioned in the structure of the novel.

According to Wikipedia, “in literature, an epigraph is a phrase, quotation or poem that is set at the beginning of a document or component. The epigraph may serve as a preface, as a summary, as a counter-example, or to link the work to a wider literary canon either to invite comparison or to enlist a conventional context.” As might be expected, the Wikipedia examples are not from books for children. However, on occasion epigraphs are included in books for children, and when they are, I take notice.

For example, our first StorySleuths book, which we investigated way back in October, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, includes this epigraph: “There is another world, but it is in this one. W.B. Yeats.” It “links the work to a wider literary canon” and “invites comparison” of Junior’s worlds in and beyond the rez. Awesome, isn’t it?

Turning to the epigraphs in The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, I discovered that they serve many functions, including those listed below.

1. Foreshadowing. The Chapter 1 epigraph refers to a “young naturalist” (p. 1), foreshadowing Callie’s initiation into the ranks of “naturalist.” Grandfather says, “You’re a regular naturalist in the making” and Callie wonders, “What, exactly, was a naturalist? I wasn’t sure, but I decided to spend the rest of my summer being one.” (p. 8)

2. Comparison. The Chapter 2 epigraph includes the statement, “the child often reverts in certain characters to its grandfather” (p. 22)—Callie, like her Granddaddy, observes the wildlife around her.

3. Humor. The Chapter 5 epigraph notes Natural Selection is “immeasurably superior to man’s feeble efforts” (p. 54), a reference to Granddaddy’s “feeble efforts” to distill “drinkable liquor.”

4. Contrast. Chapter 7’s epigraph notes that sometimes someone with a “monstrous character” may emerge from a race of the “same species” (p. 73)—Callie notes that Harry’s “young woman” was “a hag, a stooping harpy….” (p. 74) and a member of the Independent Church, which was not “acceptable” (p. 75), so Grandfather dispatches her with a “good talk” in the library (p. 92).

5. Emphasis. “The crust of the earth is a vast museum” (p. 94), the epigraph for Chapter 8, emphasizes the importance of each living, and previously living, thing that Callie encounters—the stuffed armadillo, the trilobite fossil, the bottled cuttlefish, the microscopic river creatures, and especially the discovery of the hairy vetch with the odd dependent leaf. Best of all, Callie discovers “another member of my own odd species living at the other end of the hall. There was a living treasure under our roof, and none of my brothers could see him” (p. 102). Callie is discovering that her world is a vast museum stuffed with treasures.

6. Allusion. Chapter 9’s epigraph refers to the “caterpillar or cocoon stage,” (p. 112) of Callie’s woolly caterpillar “pet” Petey, but also alludes to her developing past the “grub stage” of “human children” (p. 115), as she herself is metamorphosizing.

7. Thematic resonance. Taken together, the 28 epigraphs initiating the chapters anchor the story in the theme of Callie’s evolution. Her relationships with Granddaddy and other members of her family, her awareness of the natural world around her, and her own self-knowledge evolve throughout the book, and her growth and change are echoed in the theory of evolution that Darwin had published in what was her fairly recent past.

Literary References

Although quotations from The Origin of Species are the predominant literary references in The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, other literary references enrich the text as well. One of my favorites is the quotation from Plato that Granddaddy shares with Callie when she responds with surprise to her first glimpse of microscopic creatures: “all science begins with astonishment” (p. 105). Callie refers to a familiar story when she describes her struggles with her knitting:
“I fancied that a malevolent Rumplestiltskin crept into my room at night and undid my best work, turning the gold of my efforts into pathetic dross on a wheel perversely spinning backward.” (p. 213)
As The Origin of Species was the literary touchstone for The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, A Wrinkle in Time was the literary touchstone for November’s StorySleuths selection, When You Reach Me. Rebecca Stead clarified the central focus of Madeleine L’Engle’s book in an interview, saying "What I love about L’Engle’s book now is how it deals with so much fragile inner-human stuff at the same time that it takes on life’s big questions. There’s something fearless about this book."
Other literary references in books I love include lines in Wordsworth’s poem, Ode: Intimations of Immortality: “Trailing clouds of glory do we come…” (p. 38) in The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson, and the literary touchstone of the story of Little Red Riding Hood in Number the Stars by Lois Lowry.

What epigraphs and literary references in children’s books inspire you?

In Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft, Jane Yolen says, “Be prepared for serendipity.” She continues:
How does a writer organize luck? In a variety of ways. Perhaps a file of articles or quotations. Perhaps a stack of books from a secondhand shop on various fascinating subjects.” (p. 75)
As Rebecca Stead was inspired by A Wrinkle in Time and Jacqueline Kelly mined The Origin of Species and Katherine Paterson nourished Gilly through the power of Wordsworth’s images and Annemarie keeps telling herself the story of Little Red Riding Hood, I consider what epigraph(s) and/or literary references might illuminate the story of my WIP.

StorySleuths Tip # 53—Add serendipity to your story—consider including epigraph(s) and/or literary references to offer your readers added value and to give resonance to your theme.