Perfect chapters don’t just happen…I know that. But I just finished reading one that I like to tell myself did—Chapter 3: “The Possum Wars” in Jacqueline Kelly’s The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. The writer sat down one morning in her usual writing space, cup of tea or coffee at her side, cat curled sleepily near her feet. She opened her in-progress manuscript to where she’d left off the day before, took a deep breath, and wrote a perfect chapter.
So, what makes it perfect?
Good chapters should have dramatization, usually with characters, usually happening in one place. They should have one action, its reaction, reflection and a choice that developed out of that action—essentially its own little mini story arc.
Calpurnia Tate is the story of an eleven-year old girl Callie, a budding naturalist, living in turn-of the century Texas, interested in things girls just aren’t supposed to be interested in. The book is finely constructed, with its story arc firmly in place, with each chapter beginning and building on a particular epigraph from Darwin’s Origin of the Species.
In “The Possum Wars,” Kelly starts out relating a scene of a cat stalking a possum—the action is metaphorically related to the main story line as well as setting up a parallel to a real-life action that will be reflected at the chapter’s end. The protagonist Callie, is working with her grandfather in his library/lab, and she asks him a question: how did he become interested in science?
Now, you may have heard or been told that you can’t do certain things when writing for children: you can’t have a character ask a direct question just because you want to tell the answer; you can’t have action recounted by an adult to serve the narrative; you can’t use flashbacks. Kelly does all of these in Chapter 3, and it works. It works so well in fact, that the reading experience is seamless. The story moves easily from present day to past telling, and on its journey it sets out the frailty and preciousness of human life, seen through the eyes of an old man and freshly experienced by an eleven-year old.
Towards the end, Granddaddy says, “I shouldn’t be telling you this. You’re too young to hear it,” referring to the Civil War story he’s recounting. Yet Callie is perfectly ready to hear it, and by chapter’s end she’s learned a new, if painful truth—the perfect reflection. The beauty of this chapter is that you breeze through the tight structure, and experience only the final deliberate effect. Not every chapter in Calpurnia Tate is perfect, but this one is.