When Newbery season rolls around, we can't help thinking about our favorite books and personal picks. In honor of one of the top prizes in children's literature, we interview Jacqueline Kelly, recipient of a 2010 Newbery Honor for her debut middle-grade novel, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.
Calpurnia Virginia Tate is one of the most memorable characters to come along in children's literature in years. The only girl out of seven children, Callie Vee, as she is known, spends the sweltering days in her sleepy Texas town down by the river with her grandfather. With the story set in 1899, Callie Vee is expected to thrive in the domestic arts – needlework, cooking, playing the piano. Her mother has high expectations. But Callie would much rather be finding answers to questions about the world around her –about the grasshoppers on the lawn, about a mysterious plant, about a book called Origin of the Species. Callie finds an unexpected accomplice in Granddaddy, a naturalist, who happens to have his own copy of Charles Darwin's infamous book. As the year winds down, Granddaddy helps Calpurnia see how much their world is changing – and that new and exciting opportunities await her in the brand new century.
Question: You have a medical degree as well as a law degree, not to mention a Newbery honor under your belt as well. You must have an inquisitive mind and a passion for learning and doing. Is Calpurnia you?
Jacqueline Kelly: I either have an inquisitive mind or else I get bored easily and have to move on to something else. Yes, Calpurnia contains a lot of me. I would say she is about 60 percent me, about 30 percent my own mother, and about 10 percent various friends of mine. (I'm fortunate to have a funny mother who is nothing like the character of Mother in the book.)
Q: What inspired you to write the story of a girl coming of age in 1899?
JK: The entire book was inspired by a huge old Victorian farmhouse that I bought in the little town of Fentress many years ago. Maybe it's because we moved houses frequently when I was growing up, but I love old ancestral family houses and the sense of living history within them. I love looking at old photographs from a hundred years ago and thinking about what kind of lives the folks depicted in them must have lived.
Q: Of all places to set your book, why in the parched little town of Fentress, Texas?
JK: I fell in love with the house, which had sixteen foot ceilings and was flooded with light. It could have been in any little town in any state, and I would have reacted to it the same way.
Q: Calpurnia is more than just a 'tween butting heads with her mother. She is an inquisitive young girl who wants to understand what she sees happening around her. She wants to experience life and things that interest her, not just satisfy outdated expectations of what others think she should be. What do you want your readers – especially young girls – to take away from Calpurnia's character?
JK: I want young girls to realize that it was not so long ago that they would not have had much to say about how they lived their lives, and how important it is that they guard their independence. I want them to know that their grandmother's grandmother didn't even get to vote. How quickly things changed for women in the twentieth century. Thank goodness!
Q: You are also the author of Return to the Willows (Henry Holt and Co.), a sequel to The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, that came out last year. Can you talk about your writing life – when do you have time for it? Do you still practice medicine? How much time are you able to devote each day to writing? And what will we see next from you?
JK: I practice medicine part-time, a few hours per week. A good writing day for me is 3-4 hours in the morning while I still have caffeine coursing through my veins. I wish I could write every day, but unfortunately I can't right at the moment. I hope this will happen in the future. I am working on a sequel to Calpurnia that is about Callie and her younger brother Travis. No idea yet when it will be published.
Get to know more authors of great children's books at AuthorOf.blogspot.com.