Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Nature's Champions

She entered our hearts and minds from the pages of a book eight years ago; a middle child in a family of seven, three older and three younger brothers.  Eleven years old in the summer of 1899 Calpurnia Virginia Tate thought and acted differently than girls did or were expected to during this time period in the hot heat of Texas.  The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate a debut novel written by Jacqueline Kelly and the recipient of a 2010 Newbery Honor award revealed to readers the quiet and not so quiet determination of a girl wanting to be allowed to pursue her own interests.  Not quite two years ago on July 7, 2015 The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate continued this young woman's journey to follow her own convictions amid history's events, the ups and downs of family life and the large disparity between what was appropriate for young men and young women.

In this second book the relationship between Callie Vee and her younger brother Travis strengthened.  Her pursuit of the natural sciences and his love of animals (wanting to make each one a pet) forged an unbreakable bond.  This past fall a new series for early readers, Calpurnia Tate, Girl Vet began featuring these two memorable characters.

Calpurnia Tate, Girl Vet Skunked! (Henry Holt and Company, October 4, 2016) written by Jacqueline Kelly with illustrations by Jennifer L. Meyer and jacket art by Teagan White begins as the title suggests with a skunk.  We all know the scenarios that single word raises in our collective minds.  The results are sure to be smelly.

None of the terrible things that happened need have happened at all if the skunk hadn't drawn attention to itself by ripping up our garden and stealing a bunch of vegetables.

The year was now 1901.  The skunk in question was a mama skunk.  One fine morning out for a walk, Travis heard the sound of what he believed was a kitten in the hollow of a tree truck.  It was a kit, a baby skunk and an orphan.

Of course, Travis enlisted Callie's help with the skunk's care.  She was dead set against keeping it, but Travis had already named it Stinky.  She simply couldn't resist his kind heart.  The two kept it hidden in a rabbit cage in the darkest part of the family barn.

All seemed to be going well, until with the help of a frantic Stinky another kit, near death, was discovered in the hollow trunk.  Now a cover story for items needed for its care was fabricated by Callie and Travis.  It was touch and go for the life of the second skunk, Winky, and for the devoted brother and sister in protecting their secret.  They might have succeeded except for one thing...the family dog named Ajax and a crazy decision by Travis one day at school.

In the second full length novel a veterinarian arrived in the town of Fentress, Texas.  Dr. Pritzker allowed Callie Vee to assist him with jobs around his office, to accompany him when he tended to sick animals and even read his books.  As you might expect this was kept strictly confidential from Callie Vee's mother who would be very unhappy with this arrangement.

In the second early reader title, Calpurnia Tate, Girl Vet Counting Sheep (Henry Holt and Company, April 4, 2017) written by Jacqueline Kelly with illustrations by Jennifer L. Meyer and jacket art by Teagan White Mrs. Tate might have need of the skills acquired thus far by her daughter.  Callie knows she walks a fine, well-guarded line but her Grandfather, an extraordinary and brilliant scientist living with them, offers continuous wisdom. A morning jaunt with him challenges her skills before they are critically tested.

What I am going to tell you about took place on our farm in Fentress, Texas, in the early spring of 1901.  Now if you don't live on a farm, you might not know that spring is the season when most of the animals have their babies, and places like ours were overrun with lambs and calves and piglets and kittens.

After one early morning expedition digging in the mud, Callie Vee earned the stern discipline of her mother but managed to venture out later with her grandfather.  During their time together she found a leaf containing three dots.  In true scientific investigative style, she studied them until the fateful day when they hatched into beautiful butterflies.

One of the three had an injured wing.  Over the course of several days with the help of Grandfather and encouragement from Travis, Callie Vee performed a minor miracle.  If sheep could talk one would be grateful for this butterfly's injury.

Mother Tate had a prize sheep with wool known for its unique softness.  She bred the sheep hoping to sell the lambs for their fine wool.  When it came time for the mother to birth, she demanded Travis fetch Dr. Pritzker. (Of course Callie Vee explicitly told her it would take several hours.  That shared knowledge did generate some uncomfortable questions.)  Ease turns to unease leaving no one but Calpurnia to demonstrate being smart, ready and lucky was an advantage with brothers and life.

With her adept use in painting a setting with words Jacqueline Kelly takes us back in time to the farm, surrounding meadows and woods and the banks of the river.  We can hear the gentle sound of the water, the hum of insects and the call of birds.  Through conversations with her brothers, especially Travis, her mother, Dr. Pritzker and their cook, Viola, we come to admire all the characters and find ourselves laughing out loud more than once.  The comparison between what is acceptable to Mrs. Tate and what Callie Vee actually does are miles apart.  Here are sample passages from both books.


I watched him to see if he got the joke.  It took him a moment, but then he laughed.  I always enjoyed making him laugh.  It was like the sun bursting out from behind the clouds on a gloomy day.

"Oh, boy, another one!" Travis cried, all excited.  Stinky grew even more excited at being reunited with his brother (or sister, who could tell?).  The three of them would have thrown a party if I'd let them.  The only one not excited by the reunion was yours truly.  No, not excited.  Not at all. 

Counting Sheep

Mother said, "Send us your bill, Doctor."
"Good heavens, Mrs. Tate, I did nothing to help.  I can't send a bill on Mother Nature's behalf.  No, no.  I bid you good day.

I left Mother and Travis staring at the lamb and walked the vet back to his buggy.  I gave his mare Penny a quick pat while he loaded up.

"Well, Calpurnia, is that the first lambing you've attended?"
"Yessir, although I've read all about it in your books."
He paused.  "Have you now?  Have you...uh...told your mother about your reading those books?"
Was he crazy?  Mother would likely have a fit if she found out.  "Never, Dr. Pritzker."

Each volume contains a variety of delicate black and white illustrations drawn by Jennifer L. Meyer.   The chapters begin with a thematic picture carried throughout each book, a reflection of the main storyline.  The size of the images heightens the emotional mood of the text varying from a partial page to a full page or spanning across two pages.

The intricate details draw readers into the illustrations, making us feel as though we are participating in the story beside the characters.  The facial expressions on the characters not only depict the current mood but endear us further to the people.  The flora and fauna are portrayed with realism and also an underlying appreciation for the natural world.

One of my favorite pictures in the first title is of Travis sneaking the newly found kit into the barn.  It covers one page.  As he walks past the horses, cow, and kittens he is holding a finger to his lips asking them to not utter a sound revealing his secret.  Jennifer L. Meyer has tucked a tiny mice into a ladle, up in the loft and around a hanging lantern.  In the second book one of my favorite illustrations, on a full page, is of Callie Vee holding a jar with the lid in her hand.  The butterflies are being released.  Travis watches while holding his beloved Bunny, an angora rabbit.  Two mice and several kittens watch too.  Both of these visuals create a vivid sense of time and place.

Calpurnia Tate Girl Vet Skunked! and Calpurnia Tate Girl Vet Counting Sheep written by Jacqueline Kelly with illustrations by Jennifer L. Meyer and jacket art by Teagan White are absolutely wonderful!  I have read them both twice and they get better with every reading.  The humor is genuine, the sense of history is true and the characters are irresistible.  Volume three is set to be released the first part of October 2017.  You won't want to miss a single one.

To learn more about Jacqueline Kelly and Jennifer L. Meyer please visit their websites by following the links attached to their names. Jennifer L. Meyer has a blog here.  The artist responsible for the jacket art, Teagan White, has a website here and Tumblr pages here.  You can read an excerpt from volume two at the publisher's website.

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