Saturday, March 6, 2010


Dear Meg and Allyson,

What a beautiful, early spring day here in the Pacific Northwest! Indulge me for a moment as I share the view outside my window: a blue, blue sky that reminds me of summer; the lacy, pale pink blossoms of a cherry tree; on the fence, two crows bickering like an old married couple; and an eagle soaring high and alone above it all.

A perfect day for a hike or picnic.

Alas, I’m inside, typing at my computer. The irony is that my topic for today is how Jacqueline Kelly incorporates nature into her middle grade novel, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

The story begins in the middle of a heat wave in Fentress, Texas. “By 1899, we had learned to tame the darkness but not the Texas heat,” eleven-year-old Calpurnia narrates (p. 1).

The triple-digit weather is so hot that it forces worms into hiding, so that Calpurnia’s brothers can’t find bait for fishing. It brings out fireflies every night for a “spectacular show.” Trails of ants invade the kitchen in search of water. And a new form of grasshopper appears:

huge bright yellow ones, twice as big [as the usual green ones], and torpid, so waxy and fat that they bowed down the grasses when they landed (p. 11).

Calpurnia wonders about these yellow grasshoppers. Where did they come from? Were they an entirely new species? These questions lead her into a new relationship with her grandfather, who shares her affinity for the natural world.

As Calpurnia spends time with her grandfather, she learns about observation, nature, and science. Her new passion for science brings her into direct conflict with her parents’ and society’s expectations for a young girl of means. What will the future hold for Calpurnia?

Kindred Spirits

Reading about Calpurnia’s adventures in Texas reminded me of another spirited girl, Anne Shirley from L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books. I adored this series as a child, in part because of Anne’s overwhelming enthusiasm for the landscape around her home on Prince Edward Island, in Canada.

Here, at the beginning of the story, Anne drives through the Avenue toward her new home.

The ‘Avenue,’ so called by the Newbridge people, was a stretch of road four or five hundred yards long, completely arched over with huge, wide-spreading apple trees…. Overhead was one long canopy of snowy, fragrant bloom. Below the boughs the air was full of a purple twilight and far ahead a glimpse of painted sunset sky shone like a great rose window at the end of a cathedral aisle. Its beauty seemed to strike the child dumb. She leaned back in the buggy, her thin hands clasped before her, her face lifted rapturously to the white splendor above (p. 24-25).
When Anne recovers from the beauty of the blooming trees, she immediately scorns the Avenue’s prosaic name, calling it instead “The White Way of Delight.”

Many people believe that children (as well as adults) skim over descriptions of nature and landscape in books, preferring to read action and dialogue. But I loved reading about the trees and flowers in Anne of Green Gables when I was a child, in part, I suppose, because Anne’s enthusiasm and love for nature was so infectious.

Writing about nature

Because people do tend to gloss over long descriptive passages in novels, writing about nature can be tricky. How do authors like Jacqueline Kelly and L. M. Montgomery maintain the reader’s interest?

  1. Nature appears through the viewpoint character’s eyes. Calpurnia observes the animals and plants that live around her house, such as the possum that sleeps in a hole near her room. She even observes the ridges along the top of the mouth of a sleeping dog. In the novel, nature is up-close, and something as common as the family dog inspires curiosity and amazement.
  2. Interactions with nature provide opportunities to reveal emotion. Anne Shirley feels awe in the presence of natural beauty. Likewise, using a microscope for the first time, Calpurnia is shocked to discover “a teeming, swirling world of enormous, wriggling creatures” in pond water.
  3. Nature connects to the novel on a thematic level. By observing nature, Calpurnia develops deeper awareness of her world. Granddaddy looks at the entries in her nature journal and remarks, “It’s amazing what you can see when you just sit quietly and look” (p. 35).
  4. Descriptions of nature enrich the language itself. In The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, Kelly develops nature-oriented metaphors. For example, the men who shave their beards to combat the heat “ looked as naked as blind salamanders” (p. 3). When Calpurnia overhears her mother’s plan to train her as a proper young lady, she feels like a “coyote with her paw in the trap” (p. 220). In addition to revealing Calpurnia’s character, these metaphors build a sense of story unity.

Donald Maas in The Fire in Fiction says,

It is impossible to powerfully capture a place via objective description—at least, to capture it in a way that readers will not skim. Only through the eyes and heart of a character does a place truly come alive (p. 113).
Fentrees, Texas comes to life through Calpurnia’s unique point of view.

Nature as a subject

I’d like to veer away from specific writing techniques for a moment to consider the importance of nature and science as subjects of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. Did you know there’s a movement of people who believe that children today suffer from Nature-Deficit Disorder?

I don’t presume to guess Jacqueline Kelly’s opinion about children’s connection to nature. However, I do believe that books like The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and Anne of Green Gables provide inspiring examples of how to interact with and respond to nature. While neither has an overt “message” about the importance of nature or the environment, they feature characters who interact with nature on an intimate, engaged level, with emotions that range from curiosity to awe.

Like the big questions in Marcelo in the Real World, nature matters in The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. Phillip Gerard, author of Writing a Book That Makes a Difference, says, “The writer owes the reader a large experience—one that will increase his imaginative grasp. One way to deliver this is to recognize the obvious: Subject matter matters” (p. 34).

StorySleuths Tip #52: Bring the natural world to life by revealing it through the character’s perceptions and emotions.