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Calico Girl


About The Book

“A poignant and hopeful glimpse at the past for todays curious readers.” —Rita Williams-Garcia, Newbery Honor author

From the award-winning author of Elizas Freedom Road comes the powerful tale of a slave girls triumphant journey to freedom with her family during the Civil War.

Twelve-year-old Callie Wilcomb and her family are enslaved, and the Civil War gives them hope that freedom may be on the horizon. On May 23, 1861, the State of Virginia ratified their vote to secede from the Union. In Virginia, a window was opened where the laws of the land no longer applied. Because of the Contraband Law, enslaved people no longer had to be returned to their owners, granting them a measure of protection and safety.

With the possibility of Callie and her family escaping their bonds forever, Callie is eager to learn and become educated and hopes to teach others one day. Through hardship and loss—with love and strong family ties—Callie proves that freedom is in her stars.


Calico Girl
On April 12, 1861, the Southern Confederacy bombarded Fort Sumter off the South Carolina coast. This act of violence is what started the war between the North and the South: the Civil War. The North was industrialized. There were factories. Most of the wealth in the South was held in land and slaves and their labor. Southerners had to raise money quickly. Many plantation owners were forced to sell their slaves and livestock to pay off their debts in support of the war effort.

April 22, 1861

Sunlight poured into Suse’s bedroom, making Callie feel even more weighed down with what the day was bringing. Callie wished she could have stopped the new day from rising. Morning was her favorite time of the day, but not this morning. The world was spinning and churning out of control around her.

The hurt inside her was deep as a well; she felt she was drowning. She wished she could open herself up to release what made her feel so numb and silent.

The crying and wailing of Callie’s stepmother, Mama Ruth, could be heard all the way to Mister Henry’s house from the Quarters. He had forbidden her to leave the cabin. Callie’s papa, Hampton, was with her and Little Charlie, who was only two years of age. Callie prayed her little brother was too young to truly know or remember what was happening this horrible day.

Mister Henry was selling the last of his able-bodied slaves to Mister Arnold Tweet, a Mississippi cotton farmer. This included Albert and John, and Callie’s stepbrother Joseph. He was fifteen and could handle a plow. Joseph may not have been a seasoned slave but he could do a man’s day. He was considered a man.

Yesterday, when Mister Henry announced his intentions to sell his slaves in order to raise money for the war that was coming, Mistress Catherine was nowhere to be found. Papa found no fault with her, though.

“Callie,” he said, taking his daughter’s hands into his. Papa only did this when he wanted her to understand the thing that was so impossible for her to understand: the intricate and peculiar family ties that bound master and slave together.

Mistress Catherine was wholly white. She was Papa’s half sister. They shared the same father but not the same mother. Hampton’s mother was a slave. The child had to follow the condition of the mother. Hampton never got to know and love his mother. She was taken away from him and sold shortly after he was born. And so, he was brought up right alongside his half sisters, Catherine and Eloise.

“We must not blame Mistress Catherine for being such a timid soul,” Papa explained, trying to soothe Callie. “Matters such as these were never in her spirit to conduct.” But Callie could not even look at her papa. He gently turned her face to his.

Then Papa reminded her, “Callie, you must remember, we have a kind mistress in Catherine. It is because of her that you and I are better off than so many other folk.” Callie knew he meant, better off than even Mama Ruth, Joseph, and Little Charlie, too. And this knowledge hurt her even more.

“We must abide as best as we can until there are better times,” he told her.

“For now, Callie, in your mistress, Catherine, we have some protection,” he explained, still holding her hand. “Try to understand.”

Callie could not keep her gaze on her papa’s face. He wanted her to look into his eyes so she would understand his heart. But Callie could not control the tears that filled her eyes and spilled down her face. Callie knew all too well what he meant but she had promised herself to refuse to try to understand. Papa brought her in close while she cried.

“I don’t know how I can live in this world without Joseph,” she whispered to Papa through her tears. And I don’t know how he is supposed to live in the world alone without us, his family.”

Papa tried explaining to her the way things worked in the world they lived in. But Callie could not make right sense of the things he told her. She often wondered how her mistress, Catherine, could have a brother in her papa, who was born a slave, and was promised to never be sold away, and when he became a certain age he was given his freedom. This promise was kept. It would happen for Callie because she was Hampton’s daughter. How could it be, she wondered, that Mister Henry could have the say in pulling Papa’s family apart?

•  •  •

Once, long ago, Callie asked her papa how he felt when he became free. He looked at her and smiled.

“It was wonderful and strange,” he said. “I felt like myself, only bigger inside. There was something that made me feel as if I was newly born. When your time comes, the star that shines for you will shine even brighter, my Callista,” he said, hugging her to his chest.

Her papa promised her when she received her freedom papers he would take some of the money he was saving to send her to school in the North.

“You have a questioning mind, Callie. You have opinions about everything. You want to know about the world around you. Your heart is strong and you need this strength to live in this kind of world,” he said. “Learn everything you can, so that you can bring that wisdom to others. You will make a good teacher.”

And yet, when Callie thought on these things she wondered how freedom would truly feel for her.

How will I be able to go to school in the North and leave those I love when they do not have their freedom? This freedom can never be true for Mama Ruth, Joseph, and Little Charlie. Mister Henry owns them outright. He has never made—nor will he ever make—such a promise to them. He has said so many times, and this day proves it.

Most every night before she went to sleep, Callie thought about slave property and ownership.

I wonder on wonders why the world has been made this way. If God made this world why is this not a good world for the slave? It doesn’t seem good to me.

My mother died before I could know her. At my birth, Papa says, something went wrong as she brought me into the world. But when Mister Henry finally allowed Mistress to send for the doctor, it was too late.

Sometimes in the secret of the night when things were quiet and still, Callie would let herself feel such hateful thoughts about Mister Henry.

“He robbed me of my mother,” she would cry. Then her anguish would turn toward Suse.

But when these times happened, rivers of sadness would pour over Callie because she knew her feelings were not right. It was not Suse’s fault, Callie knew, even though she took after Mister Henry too much for her liking.

Then Callie would think how this would hurt Mama Ruth.

I have a good mother in Mama Ruth, she would tell herself. She knew my mother, and sometimes tells me about her. Stories are all anyone can give to me. And I know I have to be satisfied with that until I can make my own.

If this is the world God has made, I wish God had made another. I do not like this one. It is not good, so why is it called the Good Book?

These thoughts were in Callie’s mind and her heart and she did not know how she would forget them. Daily she prayed that God would welcome her to heaven, even with her bad thoughts. I do not want to go to the other place for all the lost souls.

“I do not want to understand,” she finally told her papa as she had told herself so many times when she was alone in the night and no one was listening.

“This is no way to live. These laws are hateful and awful, and have such ugliness about them. We are a family. You, Mama Ruth, Joseph, Little Charlie, and I are a family,” she repeated. “It is wrong to break apart a family—to include some and leave out others.”

•  •  •

The night before the sale, Mister Henry ordered Callie to stay in the room of his daughter, Suse, until his business was complete the next morning. Suse was Callie’s responsibility. Besides helping in the kitchen and some housework, Callie had to tend to Suse. When Suse had need of her or when she was sick, Callie slept on a pallet on the floor next to Suse’s bed. But this night, Callie hardly slept.

The news had caused such a commotion, such a mess after Mister Henry announced his intentions. All day long Mister Henry’s announcement rang in Callie’s ears like an out-of-tune bell. And all day long she had plotted and planned what she would do when night fell and the house was settled and quiet.

The mess and commotion would only grow worse come the next morning when Mister Arnold Tweet arrived to collect his property.

Suse had fallen asleep hours ago. But Callie’s mind twisted and turned. Her heart pounded and ached. She lay on her floor bedding, fully dressed, waiting for the moment when there was no movement from the floorboards, letting her know that everyone in the Big House was asleep. The house was quiet.

Callie had already made up her mind.

She sprang from the floor. Even without a lit candle to guide her, she knew where to go. Walking through the darkness, Callie knew where to place her steps so that she missed the floorboards and the stairs that creaked. She knew how to push in on the door handle when she opened the door to Suse’s room so there was no noise. Callie had become practiced at this. Many times before this she had sneaked out of the Big House. Sometimes she would be with Suse, maybe to count the stars or wish on them. Sometimes Callie would go alone. And when she was alone she would speak her wish for freedom out loud to the night. Or she’d steal away to her cabin where her family slept, and she would sit and listen to the quietness and their breathing.

She hated those nights when it was demanded that she sleep in Suse’s room.

This time Callie was not counting stars or seeking the comfort of her family. Callie’s heart raced. She moved quickly through the night heading to the kitchen house, careful not to disturb Elsa, the cook, who slept there. Callie grabbed the bundle of food and supplies she had hidden in the kitchen earlier that day. She hoped there was enough for two. If not, Papa had taught them how to catch fish with their bare hands. Joseph was even better at fishing this way than Papa.

She headed to the old barn. Joseph was housed there with the two other men. The barn was not of much use anymore. Mister Henry had already sold most of the farm animals. What was left of them could all be kept in the smaller barn.

Callie had decided there was nothing left to do but for the two of them to run away together. She had heard stories of slaves who had escaped their masters, but she had never heard the outcome of their fate. Her only hope was that by sunup they would have gotten far enough away from Belle Hill Farm. Callie would not allow herself to think of all that she loved that she was leaving behind.

When things were settled, they would somehow get word to Papa and Mama Ruth to let them know they were safe and free.

There was only a sliver of a moon. Callie went to the side of the barn where the boards were slack. She wiggled the boards to loosen the nails until she had enough room to squeeze through.

It was dark and musty. The air was still and close. She could see no shapes, but she could hear someone whimper.

“Joseph,” Callie called. “It’s me, Callie,” she whispered across the darkness.

“Callie-girl? What are you doing here?”

“I’ve come to set you free, Joseph. I can’t let him do this to you. I can’t let you be sold away from us. We can run away together.”

“Oh, Callie-girl,” Joseph said, trying to keep his sobs quiet. She could hear the chains rattling as he turned in her direction.

“Papa already tried, Callie. He came and talked to all of us earlier tonight,” Joseph admitted.

“Did Mama Ru . . . ?”

“No, Papa said she wanted to come but I asked him to keep her away from here.”

“Joseph, what are we going to do?”

“Unless you brought something that can break these chains, I’m going nowhere until morning.”

“Oh, Joseph,” she cried. And when she reached out to hug him she could feel that his face was wet from tears.

“Oh, Joseph, what can we do?” Callie sobbed. “What can we do?”

“You remember what Papa told us about our stars?” Callie nodded her head. “I’ll remember them, Callie-girl. Will you?”

“Yes, Joseph. I promise I will. I promise.”

Reading Group Guide

A Reading Group Guide to

Calico Girl

By Jerdine Nolen

About the Book

The time: 1861. The place: Virginia. Based on true accounts of the Civil War, Calico Girl tells the story of twelve-year-old Callie Wilcomb, her father, her stepmother, and her baby brother; the family are slaves at Belle Hill Farm. After three runaway slaves are offered refuge at the Union outpost Fort Monroe, Callie and her family decide to leave the farm and join other slaves seeking freedom. There, Callie’s life begins anew; she starts school and meets an inspirational teacher who shows her that she has a say over her life and freedom. The courage, strength, and humanity that Callie and her family display will inspire readers to delve more deeply into this important aspect of American history.

Discussion Questions

1. Reread the Author’s Note, where Jerdine Nolen explains why she wanted to write a story that addressed issues surrounding slavery. She writes, “What draws me in is wondering and imagining how one particular event impacted an individual or family. I have wondered about this for a long time: What did it feel like to finally be free?” Discuss how Nolen uses details to help the reader better understand what it was like to be a slave and what freedom finally felt like for Callie and her family.

2. Callie must endure Suse’s delight in watching the slave sale that will separate Callie from her brother, Joseph. Using specific examples from the text, explain how the author reveals Suse’s control over the girls’ relationship. Suse tells Callie, “I could be closer to you, Callie—a lot closer to you. But there is a line Daddy says I must never cross.” What does Suse mean by “a line”? What does the line symbolize?

3. Although Suse’s father, slave owner Henry Warren, exits the story after chapter three, readers learn a great deal about the business of slavery through Henry’s eyes, including the South’s need to hold on to their way of life, prejudices, and the notion of honor. Discuss some of the common beliefs held by slave owners. How does Henry reveal his intense prejudice and hatred toward Callie’s father, Hampton? Why does Henry admire Hampton as much as he despises him?

4. Discuss Hampton’s feelings that “. . . he never wanted to deny any part of himself. Though part of him was white, he was still a whole man, a whole person.” While Hampton is technically a free man, he isn’t truly equal to any white man in his world during this time. Describe the ways he is still treated like a slave, despite having his freedom papers.

5. Discuss the meaning of the phrase “Desperate times call for desperate measures.” Why do you think Shepard Mallory, Frank Baker, and James Townsend would rather risk being runaway slaves than fight for the Confederacy? How is their decision to escape to Fort Monroe a desperate measure?

6. When Hampton learns about possible protection at Fort Monroe for runaway slaves, he is at first hopeful. Then his hope is tempered as he begins to doubt Raleigh’s story. Discuss the following line: “Hope is not sweet when doubt lingers.” Given Hampton’s past experiences, why does he find Raleigh’s story difficult to believe?

7. What is empathy? Discuss examples throughout the text in which characters display empathy for others. Readers learn that Ruth Wilcomb “listened, watched, and noticed everything. It made her attuned to the feelings of others.” How does listening, watching, and noticing help build empathy?

8. Nolen uses sewing metaphors and similes to describe Ruth’s state of mind and the grief of losing her son, Joseph. For example: “She sometimes saw her thoughts as tangled pieces of thread in the bottom of her sewing basket.” Discuss the meaning of this line and other sewing-related descriptive language.

9. Catherine Wilcomb Warren, Henry’s wife and Suse’s mother, is a character torn between the world in which she lives and her true beliefs. Discuss how she speaks to Ruth in chapter seven. How does Nolen reveal Catherine’s discomfort with the conversation? How does she reveal Catherine’s humanity and true feelings about slavery? Discuss Catherine’s statement to Ruth about living with slavery: “But I daresay that I do not wholly know how to live in it. It can make you feel that a part of you is all but disappeared or someone else breathes through your lungs, sees through your eyes, speaks your words, and stands in your place entirely.” At the end of their talk, why does Catherine feel relief?

10. What did Hampton risk by pulling the drowning soldier from the river? What does this act reveal about Hampton’s character? How does the way in which the Union soldiers speak to Hampton after the rescue create a turning point in the story? Imagine if this scene had occurred in the Confederacy. How do you think Hampton would have been treated?

11. Chapter ten is a pivotal chapter for Callie and the story as a whole, as she addresses mixed feelings about leaving Belle Hill Farm for Fort Monroe. Using examples from the text, discuss why Callie is both excited and scared, happy but sad. Discuss a time in your own life when you felt opposing emotions at the same time. At the end of this chapter, Callie is no longer ambivalent about leaving Belle Hill Farm, and says, “I want all of us to have a say over our own lives and what we do for the rest of our lives.” How does this statement reveal her growth, courage, and strength?

12. After Charlie’s death, Callie is overcome with grief. Why does Callie feel Charlie’s death is her fault? Discuss what Mrs. Peake means when she tells Callie: “We all have some things in our life that we have lost that tear us apart, that make us feel we cannot go on. But you must go on. There are things that make us sad. Still, you must rise above these things and have the life you are intended to have. Life and the ones we love expect and require this of us.”

13. Why does Callie feel transformed when she puts on the calico dress? What does the dress symbolize to her?

14. In chapter fifteen, Callie comes face-to-face with Suse, her former owner and childhood playmate. Reread the chapter, comparing how the two girls interact from the beginning of the chapter to its conclusion. How do their attitudes change? Why was it so important for Callie to confront Suse about her experience in Calper’s Cave? Why does Suse initially deny that she left Callie alone in the cave, and then eventually admit to it? Why do you think Suse eventually shows empathy for Callie? How is the truth a type of power?

15. The theme of education runs throughout Calico Girl. When Callie learns that Mr. and Mrs. Fowle want to educate her in Massachusetts, she is shocked and bewildered by the kindness of strangers. Mrs. Peake tells Callie: “There is nothing to understand . . . he is a man who is very kind to colored people.” Discuss the power of kind and noble acts. How is this one act of kindness a life-changing event for Callie? Discuss what Mrs. Peake means by the following statement: “Mr. Fowle is not just helping you. He is helping so many others who are yet to come.”

16. Reread Lieutenant Matthew Jessup’s letter to his family. Discuss the meaning of the following two lines: “When I set out as a soldier I did not factor in the human element” and “They [slave owners] do more to follow their greed.”

17. How does Chloe’s arrival in chapter eighteen illustrate Callie’s growth and empathy?

18. In the book’s final chapter, the green dress Suse callously gave to Callie reappears when Callie offers it to her new friend, Chloe. What did the dress symbolize for Callie when Suse gave it to her, and what does it symbolize when she gives it to Chloe? Why does Callie only now see how beautiful the dress is? Why didn’t she want to notice it before?

19. In the book’s afterword, Nolen quotes the actual Mrs. Peake: “We want to get wisdom. That is all we need. Let us get that, and we are made for time and eternity.” What is wisdom? Do you agree that wisdom is all we need?

Extension Activities

1. Chapter one features text from a newspaper advertisement offering money for slaves:

Wanted, Slave Labor!

In the South, Cotton is King.

There is Cash Money to be made!

Each slave is sold for $2000.

Discuss the meaning of the phrase “Cotton is king” and the nature of the agricultural south. Give students time to research and identify primary source documents, such as advertisements, that were typical tools in keeping the business of slavery alive.

2. Calico Girl is mainly organized into chapters with titles that reveal the point of view of the book’s characters. In this activity, called “What’s in your Head,” students will choose a character to analyze. On the board, make a line drawing of a head. Have students re-create it on a piece of paper, and label it as one of the story’s characters. Inside the head, students will write the character’s internal thoughts and feelings. On the outside, they will write examples of the external forces that shape the character. Encourage students to use specific examples from the text.

3. Ruth is a seamstress and the person who gives Callie the nickname Calico Girl. Callie equates the fabric to teaching, education, and also to freedom; to her, it is the opposite of the slave cloth she is forced to wear at Belle Hill Farm. Bring in a wide selection of calico samples. Lead a lesson in stitchery and quilt making. Show examples of a variety of traditional American quilts that were popular at the time, including those created by slaves. Allow students to choose a selection of fabrics to make a small nine-square quilt.

4. Callie asks Mrs. Peake, “What does it mean to live and be free?” Challenge students to write a 3-5 paragraph essay answering Callie’s question as it pertains to their own lives.

5. Lieutenant Matthew Jessup pens a letter home to his family in Vermont explaining “when I set out as a soldier I did not factor in the human element.” In a short period of time, Jessup realizes the barbaric nature of slavery. Have students write a one-page letter to Jerdine Nolen, sharing what they’ve learned about slavery by reading Calico Girl.

Guide written by Colleen Carroll, literacy specialist, education consultant, and author of the twelve-volume series, How Artists See and four-volume How Artists See, Jr. (Abbeville Press). Contact Colleen at

This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.

About The Author

Photo by Nancy Kavanagh O'Neill

Jerdine Nolen is the beloved author of many award-winning books, including Big JabeThunder Rose, a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book; and Hewitt Anderson’s Great Big Life, a Bank Street Best Book of the Year, all illustrated by Kadir Nelson. She is also the author of Eliza’s Freedom Road, illustrated by Shadra Strickland, which was an ALA/YALSA Best Fiction Nominee for Young Adults; Raising Dragons, illustrated by Elise Primavera, which received the Christopher Award; and Harvey Potter’s Balloon Farm, illustrated by Mark Buehner, which was made into a movie by the same name. Her other books include Calico Girl, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year, and Irene’s Wish, illustrated by A.G. Ford, which Kirkus Reviews called “delightful and memorable” in a starred review. Ms. Nolen is an educator and lives in Ellicott City, Maryland.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books (February 14, 2017)
  • Length: 192 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781481459815
  • Grades: 3 - 7
  • Ages: 8 - 12
  • Lexile ® 720L The Lexile reading levels have been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®

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Raves and Reviews

*"Nolen's tender story of the Wilcomb family's losses and aspirations will resonate. At once heartbreaking and uplifting, a gentle, lyrical story of a determined black girl's journey toward freedom during the Civil War. " -- Kirkus Reviews, starred review

– Kirkus, STARRED REVIEW, 12/15/16

"Fort Monroe, a Union-controlled outpost in the antebellum South, provides the backdrop for the story of Callie, an enslaved girl. Background notes and a time line at the beginning explore how Union soldiers were able to exploit a legal loophole to save countless lives, while an afterword provides further source material for this pivotal moment in American history." — Booklist

– Booklist, December 15, 2016

"Jerdine Nolen's CALICO GIRL waves fabrics of freedom in every forward step of her undaunted heroine's
journey. Nolen's deftly crafted scholarship offers a poignant and hopeful glimpse at the past for today's curious
readers." - Rita Williams-Garcia, Newbery Honor author

Awards and Honors

  • Bank Street Best Children's Book of the Year Selection Title

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