Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Callie Vee

THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE does have that nice Southern and/or country voice that we often associate with the Newbery, not to mention a spunky heroine, but  . . . don’t you think it’s too long and boring to win the Newbery?
Several years ago Vicky Smith bemoaned the fate of Disappearing Children’s Books.  I think one of the reasons that we’re losing those pure juvenile titles is that some of them are bloated.  What should be 200-250 page books are now written as 300-350 page books, pushing them beyond the reach of many elementary age readers.  More recently, Roger Sutton talked about the same phenomenon.
What does all this have to do with the Newbery criteria?  Absolutely nothing.  Length and pacing have nothing to do with the Newbery criteria (well, not necessarily).  But the problem for THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE arises from comparison with other historical fiction titles, that have many of the same strengths, but half the pages, namely A SEASON OF GIFTS and RIOT by Walter Dean Myers.
Both CAPURNIA TATE and A SEASON OF GIFTS have strong narrative voices, wonderful settings, and fully realized characters.  But less is more so I have to give A SEASON OF GIFTS the edge when it comes to plot and theme.  By comparison, the extra words in CALPURNIA seem to dilute the power of the book. 
I know, I know, I can hear some of you out there in cyberspace murmuring that you actually like the pacing of CALPURNIA TATE, that you like longer books.  This is true, but the Newbery Medal is not given for what you like or for what I like, but rather for what is most distinguished.   
RIOT is the antithesis of CALPURNIA, a very spare screenplay that will leave many character-driven fans of CALPURNIA feeling cheated and frustrated.  So think of these three historical fictions as Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  CALPURNIA: too long and boring.  RIOT: too short and confusing.  GIFTS: Ah, just right. 
Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. I’m afraid I’m with you on Calpurnia Tate. I liked the voice, and the character was charming, but after awhile I lost interest. I was under the impression it would be the story of a summer, but then it seemed to be going off on some other timetable that wasn’t clear to me. I was going to force myself to finish and then decided I had too many other books I wanted to read more.

  2. Jonathan Hunt says:

    The most damning thing I can say about the book is that I had it with me on a cross-country plane flight–you have to know that I will reading *anything* on a plane–and couldn’t bring myself to keep reading. I picked it back up later when it started getting so much buzz and so many starred reviews. Clearly, this book is not my cup of tea, but beyond that I do not find it as distinguished as, say, WHEN YOU REACH ME.

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    And not to worry, Henry Holt, you have still have a Newbery worthy Darwin-themed book in your stable–we just haven’t discussed it much yet.

  4. I enjoyed Calpurnia Tate very much (and as I posted earlier, found the sentence-level style most distinguished), but found it ultimately a little bit “messy”–I agree, it could have been tightened up. I often state that I think most books are too long, but occasionally I love a book for being long if I’m really wrapped up in story, characters, and setting; I’ll have to think more about what keeps a really good “long” book from seeming “messy” to me.

    I don’t really believe the length of books pushes them out of the reach of readers, though–not length itself. Many have pointed out that young readers don’t seem to be daunted by the length of Harry Potter, and my copy of the Melendy Family omnibus, which is a discard from my elementary school library, shows the names of many kids who (I’m convinced) only checked it out because it was the fattest book on the shelf. (It probably wouldn’t be very noticeable these days.)

    It’s difficult to compare Newbery winners for length because of differences in font size and cut, and also I often think of the ones that took me a long time to get through as being “long” when they might not be. A few previous lengthy winners (I’m pretty sure)–besides the obvious early ones–are The Hero and the Crown, Hitty, Dicey’s Song, and MC Higgins, the Great. A few of the winners are very short, but it seems like many of them tend toward long-ness.

    Others have noted something about Calpurnia Tate that does put me off some–the perspective and voice seem kind of moveable. She’s looking back, but from when? And I get that she has a pretty sophisticated scientific vocabulary, but her non-scientific vocabulary seems to flash between low-to-normal and high.

  5. Sarah O'Holla says:

    I loved CALPURNIA but didn’t start loving it until page 40 or so (When Grandfather tells that story about the bat in his tent during the war). I agree that it could have used better editing.

  6. Interesting. If I were to place a laurel on the head of any Henry Holt book, I would think it would naturally go on their previous winner Ms. Engle. After all, her current book is the youngest fare she’s cranked out yet.

  7. Jonathan Hunt says:

    As a teacher and librarian, I can assure you that length does indeed limit an elementary age audience. Let’s say that 1/3 of my students would read CALPURNIA, but if it were a hundred pages shorter, I could probably get 1/2 of them to read it. Fewer pages would mean a bigger audience, especially for the younger kids.

    Now the older those kids get, of course, the less intimidating the page counts are. Middle schoolers can handle the 338 pages of CALPURNIA, but is it really a middle school book? I don’t think so.

    But that’s very much a utilitarian concern. With my Newbery hat on, I’m not concerned about any of that. I can give this award to a book regardless of whether 1/2 or 1/3 or 1/4 will read it.

    But also with my Newbery hat on, I can compare its molasses-slow pacing to the crisp pacing of A SEASON OF GIFTS and the lightning-fast pacing of RIOT. And I think the book suffers in that comparison.

    I do agree that TROPICAL SECRETS fits squarely in the juvenile range, Fuse, but I don’t think the quality of the poetry is as strong as it was in THE POET SLAVE OF CUBA or THE SURRENDER TREE. I’ve got a poetry/verse novel post on the docket. Stay tuned.

  8. says:

    I loved WHEN YOU REACH ME, but I loved CALPURNIA TATE even better–and I think I loved it better because of its generosity. It felt richer, more heartfelt–and though–again–I loved WHEN YOU REACH ME, it doesn’t contain a moment as heart-breaking or stunning as when Calpurnia gets a Domestic Science book as a present.

    I don’t agree that because a book is terser it is necessarily better. Some people like terse, elegant, and linear and that is fine. But a book that has a broader scale, a few more curves, and a sense of unhurried abundance is not to be despised on that account. Some people like Cezanne; others like Rubens. The cistern contains: the fountain overflows.

  9. I enjoyed Calpurnia very much as well, and though I’m open to the idea that it could be tighter, what I appreciated was how all those moments seemed to accumulate in Callie Vee and organically grow her passion and self-discovery. Because of all the events we witness, I believe by the end of the book that she has an abiding interest in science and that it’s not just a summer’s fancy.

    I also thought the Christmas present scene was a great moment, but what I appreciated even more was not knowing what was going to happen in the end. She MIGHT wind up going to college, but she very well might not. That felt very true to the setting, unlike some other historical fiction girl-power books in which the girls always get to pursue their dreams no matter how unlikely that would have been in real life.

  10. So over CT. Spunky girl who I cheered on through the pages, but I needed some more action. I can only see a few of my more mature bookish girls to get into this book.
    Still waiting for someone to explain to me why When You Reach Me is all that…
    It is different but such a let down at the end.

  11. Many have said that CT is slow and needs more action. Do you mean that there should be more action events within the setting of this book? More death, danger, romance? Or is it that this type of book, where the most dramatic moment is when she gets a book for Christmas, just isn’t appealing to you and/or to kids? What I’m trying to get at: Does CT fall short as a book of “unhurried abundance” (as LSCHL70573 describes it so well)? Or is it that this type of book can’t be distinguished because they’ll always be wordier and less action packed that others?

Speak Your Mind