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Battle of the Books

Round 1 Match 2: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate vs Fire

by Kristin Cashore
Dial Books
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
by Jacqueline Kerry
Henry Holt

Judged by Nancy Farmer

It is perhaps unfair to judge Fire and The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate in the same contest. The first is clearly a YA book and the second is for a younger audience. I took this into account when reading them. That being said, I think The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is truly outstanding and deserves to win. It’s like a breath of fresh air. The characters are so beautifully drawn and likeable. Calpurnia’s relationship with her family feels completely real and the book is true to that period of time and that location. What I particularly like is the unstated (yet clear) love the characters have for each other. There are so few books anymore that portray a happy family. I think children need to know that not all families are riddled with divorce, infidelity, child abuse and drug addiction, the favorite topics of children’s books today.

The dialogue in Calpurnia is pitch-perfect, showing each character’s personality. Calpurnia’s mood swings from joy to despair and back again, are exactly what a girl of that age experiences. Her grandfather’s dignified affection for her is completely believable. Viola is an especially interesting character, caught as she is between slavery and freedom. She never forgets her or anyone else’s social standing, but is loyal to the Tate family. Her personality is vivid and intelligent. Even the minor characters in this novel are carefully drawn. The book is simply marvelous on every level.

I thought Fire was clever, but I couldn’t relate to the characters or tell most of them apart. It reads like a science fiction book, and that is a genre that depends on ideas rather than character. Even for a YA, though, Fire contained a great deal of violence, torture, mutilation and rape. I found the story depressing. If there had been one good friendship or love affair I could have forgiven it, but everyone seemed to suffer all the time. Fire should probably have been paired with another YA novel.

Nancy Farmer

Round 1, Match 2 Winner is….

Actually, FIRE probably should have been paired with a different judge.  Bring back Tamora Pierce!  Bring back Kristin’s mom!  Bring back anybody who can advance Cashore past the second round!  Didn’t SLJ get the memo from Battle Commander about this conspiracy?  Where are the co-conspirators?  And who knew Nancy would be so squeamish about violence, torture, mutilation, and rape?  I mean, aren’t those staples of any good Viking story?  Truth be told, while I think FIRE is better written than GRACELING, I wasn’t nearly as captivated by the world-building nor as enamored with the characters, so I can’t fault Nancy for her lack of enthusiasm on those points.  And yet I am also on record as being strangely unaffected by CALPURNIA.  Long and boring.  Yawn.  It just didn’t resonate with me on any level.  Different strokes for different folks, I guess.  Nevertheless, CALPURNIA’s victory sets the stage for a very intriguing match in the second round: the Battle of the Darwin Books.

— Commentator Jonathan Hunt


  1. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! I loved Fire so much– I was really hoping to see it continue on. It’s such a shame that it had to face a judge who wasn’t interested in an emotionally challenging plot. Yes, Fire is at times harsh– but how can she say there is no love story? And no friendships, when the book is full of them! There is a commendable complexity to so many of the characters, who at first seem horrid, but ultimately grow into strong, honorable people. The only thing about this book that did not work for me completely was the inclusion of Lek. In some ways, it suited, but in others, it distracted from the purported main plot of the nobles’ uprising, and was not integrated as organically as I would have liked.

    I haven’t read Calpurnia Tate, so I can’t say whether I would have made the same ultimate choice, but I am so sad to see one of my favorite books dismissed so summarily. This is The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks all over again! When will the Battle of the Children’s Books stop breaking my feminist heart?

    I guess I’ll just have to pray for the zombie round…

  2. I also found Calpurnia Tate to be boring – I especially had wanted to hand it to girls who have an interest in science, but it turned out to be all relationships, all the time – Calpurnia’s interest in science could have just as easily been any other pursuit not traditionally associated with females at the time, say, baseball.

    And – much respect to Nancy Farmer, but “divorce, infidelity, child abuse and drug addiction, the favorite topics of children’s books today” ?? Which children’s books does SHE read?

  3. Well, poo. Also, words I can’t say on a family-friendly website.

    Guess I didn’t waste my Zombie vote after all. And, since the leader of the Zombie poll had “The” in the title, I need to hope that whatever it is is a natural finalist, so my beloved Fire can get back in.

    Calpurnia was a good, smooth ride but had a disappointing ending and never swept me away. Fire grabbed me and played with my heart and made me care and hurt… and love! AND WHAT DO YOU MEAN THERE IS NO LOVE AFFAIR?!?!?! OR good friendship!? Yes, there are also plenty of dysfunctional relationships, but that is a large part of the book’s strength… the honesty that these are human, fallible, messed-up people, and that this generation is making its own mistakes while trying to atone for the mistakes of their parents.


  4. I thought the pacing of Calpurnia Tate felt like a Texas summer … slow and easy. And I really liked it. But I didn’t read Fire as SF isn’t really my kind of read.

  5.! First two rounds and two of my favorites are gone!

    Calpurnia was long and slow and easy to putdown and hard to pick back up and NONE of my students will check it out and NONE of my teacher book club members enjoyed it. Or saw how it could be for children. Or how they could kill it, er use it, in the classroom.

    I am saddened. I LOVED Fire – and I did caution against the sex and abortion issues that Cashore did seem to harp on – but this should have been simple. I thought Brig and Fire had a great love story. And Fire’s relationship with Brig’s family? Doesn’t that count as friendship?

    I thought Calpurnia was more “friends” with her family than anyone else.

    I am disheartened. I am going to go read now. And possibly work.

  6. Yippee, I considered Callie the underdog in this match up. Sharon, I love the Texas summer analogy. A friend of mine compared the book’s gentle pacing to evolution, which takes a long time to achieve and results in subtle change. I’m with Nancy Farmer on her appreciation of the characters and relationships.

    I don’t know who could say the Nancy Farmer would shy away from emotionally challenging plots. The House of the Scorpion turned my world inside out and upside down. She sure didn’t shy away from the distressing emotions in that book. Although I wouldn’t think the author of Sea of Trolls would be squeamish about a bit of violence. Wimp that I am, I could not go on to read the sequels.

    I’m about half-way through with Fire and fully understand that it will have the Hunger Games constituency on its side, which means there will be plenty of sobbing into Robbie Pattison pillow cases tonight.

  7. Oh, dear. I absolutely loved “House of the Scorpion”, and would have thought its author would have a better appreciation of Cashore’s subtle characterizations and the issues she was dealing with. I found “Fire” to be absolutely gripping, and could not get into “Calpurnia Tate”. Just my two cents.

    BTW, is this Miriam from Chappaqua? Sounds like her!

  8. I am delighted that Calpurnia won this round. It is beautifully written; the language in the book is so descriptive. This is truly children’s literature. The reader got a glimpse into a the life of a family at the turn of the century. Callie’s interest in science would have been an issue at that time when contrasted with the expectations society had for women. Hooray for Nancy for making this excellent choice!

  9. Well, two rounds and I’m 0 for 2 with my predictions. I’m so glad I voted for Fire in the Undead Poll — it’s my favorite of all the books in the Battle. And I, too, found Calpurnia Tate very easy to put down and very hard to pick back up again — after halfway through, I decided I had lots of better things to read.

    Yes, FIRE had some disturbing elements. I do caution people that it’s not for young teens. But, for me, the characterization, the moral dilemmas, and, yes, the love story, more than made up for it.

    Oh well, that’s half the fun of The Battle of the Books — It’s definitely not objective, and points out that different readers appreciate different strengths. Here’s hoping FIRE comes back from the dead!

  10. Nope, Mary, not from Chappaqua. I must have a name-sharing internet doppleganger… oh dear.

  11. Whee! I’m two for two on my brackets! I don’t agree with Nancy Farmer’s argument against Fire (I thought it was great) but I love what she had to say about Calpurnia.

  12. Shellieek says:

    I read Calpurnia with my seven-year-old daughter and we both loved it, so obviously this book works for some kids. I liked the quiet realism of it (how she managed to make a book with six brothers both quiet and realistic is beyond me, but she did!) Both my daughter and I felt Calpurnia’s anguish at the oppression she experienced as a girl at the turn of the 20th Century acutely. I agree that the end didn’t satisfy, but we figured that assured us a sequel, right? One thing I like about this book is its illumination of the beauty and character that exists in science, as well as in the natural world.

    I didn’t read Fire because I wasn’t that impressed with Graceling and I had read that Fire was worse that it was. I like fantasy just fine, but I just thought that the characters were washed-out and the the storytelling just wasn’t compelling.

  13. Marie1163 says:

    I also loved Fire and couldn’t stand Calpurnia. Hopefully Fire will be revived from the dead and Calpurnia will die away from this competition.

  14. I ran to my computer this morning, logged in, checked the battle and was shocked. I really thought Fire was the shoe- in for this grouping. It’s such a strong, gorgeous, colorful book. Sure it’s fantasy, but it’s also the Middle Ages reinvented. I admit that I’ve only read about 10 pages of Calpurnia, I wasn’t compelled to go on. There is so much out there to read. The writing just wasn’t there for me.
    I’m glad that Fire is my bring it back from the dead choice. I’ve got my fingers crossed.

  15. A School Librarian says:

    To say that Fire does not have characters that the readers can relate to or tell apart just seems bazaar and also unfair to me. Here is an emailed enthusiastic line from a student of mine (16-year-old, male) right after reading FIRE last year, “I LOVE Fire. Both the book and the character.” So much of FIRE is about the characters and how each one must deal with what life dealt them. Brigand is completely different from Archer and both are distinct characters.

  16. NOOOOOO! Now I have to go edit my homemade bracket/predictions for the rest of the Battle. Phooey.

    Well, I’ve read both, and while I agree that Calpurnia was slow, I also agree that Fire was much stronger than Graceling, and I thought that the love/friendships in Fire were much more formulated than in Calpurnia. (This is just the opinion of one fifteen-year-old girl, though.:P)

    But, opinions differ from person to person, so…

  17. yarnteller says:

    Calpurnia won my vote in our 4th grade mock Newbery; the kids picked When You Reach Me.

    I especially loved Calpurnia because I had the delightful experience of meeting Jacqueline Kelly when she visited a local bookstore. She read the Thanksgiving chapter to us. The audience was small, only four people, so we had a chance to talk to Jacqueline. Conversation touched on the cover of the book, which she chose after rejecting another, to The Wind in the Willows. A memorable author and a remarkable book that makes science come to life.

  18. Not much to say except for 🙁

    FIRE was one my personal favorites last year. At least I got to vote for it in the Undead Poll.

  19. I know I’m late to this dance, but I have to say, I really enjoy both historical fiction and sci-fi/fantasy. As a media specialist in a middle school, I have kids that I can recommend Calpurnia to, but not to the large majority. In a school of 2400, it has been checked out exactly once in the past year. Nancy Farmer’s least popular books check out way more frequently than that!Personally, I got about halfway through before I put it down. I felt that I knew everything it was trying to teach, and I was totally uninterested in the characters or story. It reads like a kids’ book written to entice adults.

    Fire, on the other hand, is a little too high-school for my middle school, so I don’t have it in my library, but I wish I could, because I know so many kids who would really love it. I loved Graceling, but I found the first half of Fire difficult to get through (largely because I was dreading the return of Leck, who was in Graceling, and because I didn’t care for the animal abuse). But by the second half of Fire, I was enjoying the characters and the story and was thoroughly engrossed. I ended up liking it way more than I thought I would from the beginning.

    Of these two books, I definitely preferred Fire.

  20. I’m shocked at all the praise for Fire–I think it’s a really amateurish book, a stereotypical fantasy. I’m very suprised at all the accolades this author has received. But then, people love Twilight, too.

  21. I’m so glad Fire didn’t advance. I didn’t care for it, nor Graceling. I am a big SF/Fantasy reader, and I absolutely adore The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, but Cashore just doesn’t do it for me. Her characters aren’t realistic, and I find there’s nothing in her stories to hold my attention. Calpurnia, while slow, was at least relateable.

  22. This is gonna be my favourite


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