Posted on August 28th, 2013
hen I was in the fifth grade, I wrote a fan letter to Lloyd Alexander.
Don’t feel bad if you don’t recognize the name. He was only the single most awesome author of fantasy fiction for young adults pretty much before the genre even existed. He won a Newbery Award, too! I loved his books so much that I had to write him and tell him so. And if I needed any further proof of just how cool Lloyd Alexander was, he wrote back to me at my fangirl residence in Omaha, Nebraska.
That was as close an encounter as I could claim to children’s literature greatness—until Monday, that is, when our very own Bookworks played host to Newbery Award-winner Jacqueline Kelly, author of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.
Children’s author is Kelly’s third professional incarnation; she is a physician, continuing to practice two mornings a week, and added a law degree sometime after medical school. In the cool of the store, she graciously answered questions about her writing, her recognition and the birthplace for the inquisitive, iconoclastic Calpurnia Tate—a character inspired during the first summer she spent in a 150-year-old dilapidated Victorian farmhouse she bought with the intention of restoring it.
During the hour-long conversation with teachers and librarians, Kelly talked a little about her work on the sequel to Calpurnia Tate (nearly finished but still in need of a title; she invited suggestions). The new book picks up four months after the last one left off, she explained, to allow her to include some history about the hurricane that destroyed Galveston in September of 1900.
Kelly said she is committed to writing a third Calpurnia installment but laughed a little, saying it was hard to imagine completing a third one as she is finishing up the second. The Victorian home that had been her inspiration for the first book was struck by lightning a few years back and burned to the ground within hours. It was difficult embarking upon the sequel to Calpurnia, she said, thinking about its loss.
Kelly told listeners that educators had reported back that boys enjoyed the story of Calpurnia’s turn of the century scientific awakening, but that the cover art—an intricate silhouette of a girl in period clothing—was off-putting to young male readership. This second installment, which Kelly said will pick up four months after the last book left off, will more prominently feature one of Calpurnia’s six brothers, a collector of inappropriate pets named Travis that, it is hoped, will appeal more directly to young boys.
On my drive home with The Three, I thought about Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. The books were prototypical expansions on the age-old war between good and evil, sure, fantastic extensions of Celtic lore, but with the exception of the outspoken Princess Eilonwy, the characters I fell in love with were boys and men. There were bloody battles and noble sacrifices but I never paid a bit of attention to the cover art, vaguely impressionistic paintings of men on horseback.
I don’t think we’ve come quite as far as we think we have.∗