Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Evolution and the Pelican

I have delayed posting reviews of Katherine Paterson's, The Day of the Pelican, and Jacqueline Kelly's, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, because I have mixed feelings about them both. I think they are well-written, thought-provoking books; however, I do question their "suggested reader" age ranges and their general appeal to children.

Paterson, Katherine. 2009. The Day of the Pelican. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

The Day of the Pelican (so named for an incident involving a drawing of a pelican that occurred on the day that Meli's life took a turn for the worse) is a historical fiction account of the flight of 11-year old Meli Lleshi's Kosovar Albanian family from the Serbian ethnic cleansing campaign of terror.  Meli comes from a large, tight-knit extended family, however the focus of the book is primarily on Meli, her older brother Mehmet, and her parents.  After Mehmet is arrested, jailed, beaten and left for dead by the local police force, the Lleshis are forced to admit and react to the fact that they are no longer welcomed in their homeland.

This book is suggested by the publisher for grades 5-9.  I disagree.  The underlying reason for the Lleshi family's flight is the ethnic cleansing of Albanian Kosovars.  Additionally, there is veiled reference (explained more fully in the author's notes following the story) to war crimes against women - both very heavy topics for 10-year old readers. Additionally, Meli's brother, Mehmet, who becomes, understandably, radicalized by his treatment at the hand of the Serbs, is a difficult character for young readers to embrace.  It is easy to dislike Mehmet for his headstrong and moody demeanor; and it will take an older, more experienced reader to comprehend the reality that makes Mehmet's character not only believable, but sadly commonplace.

Congratulations to Katherine Paterson on her appointment as the new National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. She follows in the esteemed footsteps of the first National Ambassador, Jon Scieszka.  "Read for Your Life" is the theme for Ms. Paterson's platform. She has her own website and a fan page on FB.

Kelly, Jacqueline. 2009. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. New York: MacMillan.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate takes place in rural Texas at the turn of the 20th century.  Eleven-year-old, Calpurnia is the only daughter in a family consisting of six brothers, Calpurnia, her parents, and Granddaddy.  The Tate's successful farm was established by Granddaddy, but he has since retired after serving in the Civil War, and has turned his attention to scientific endeavors - not the least of which is an attempt to create liquor from distilled pecans.  Calpurnia and Granddaddy develop a very close relationship based on Calpurnia's interest in the new and controversial book, On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. Each chapter begins with a passage from Darwin's book. The "evolution" in Kelly's novel refers not only to the evolutionary adaptations of Texas' native plants and insects, but also to Calpurnia herself, who evolves into a budding feminist, ready to challenge the societal expectations for women at the dawn of a new century.

Kelly's story is a mix of science, Darwinian Theory, family life, and a large helping of humor.  There is no crisis in the story, no action-packed turning point - just a warm, familial march to an unknown future.  Calpurnia is a delightfully funny and intelligent protagonist.

MacMillan's discussion guide for The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate offers discussion questions and a list of words that may send young readers (hopefully) scurrying for a dictionary (ignominy, dragooned, desiccated, to name a few).  These words, however, weren't the ones that sent me to my online nook dictionary. I had to hunt up several archaic words, most of which did not appear in the nook dictionary. (Note to Barnes and Noble: Merriam-Webster would be nice.) This book's suggested age range is grades 4-7.  Although I am a proponent of challenging vocabulary for children, I think that the level of vocabulary difficulty combined with the scientific premise of the book may be off-putting for young readers.

Bottom line - recommend these books to thoughtful, older readers who enjoy history, science, and/or world cultures.  Readers who stick with these two titles will end up enlightened.

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