Hazel’s Theory of Evolution    

by | Feb 13, 2024

“Hazel’s Theory of Evolution,” by Chicago-based author Lisa Jenn Bigelow, starts with a train. A train schedule, to be more precise. Hazel Brownlee-Wellington had always gone to Osterhout Middle School, together with her best friend, Becca. But when the train company changes its schedule and the school bus is stuck at the RR crossing for so long the kids are late to school, the school district re-assigns some students to a different school so they don’t have to deal with the train. As a result, Hazel lands at a new school, Finley, for her last year of middle school. Without her best — and only — friend, Becca.

What is extra fun is that Hazel lives on a small goat farm with her two moms and brother, Rowan. Hazel’s biological mom makes soaps and lotions from goats’ milk and sells them at farmers’ markets and bazaars. Her other mom, Mimi, is a lawyer. 

As an aside, I appreciate that readers get a peek at two very different career paths – a small, craft-based business and a more conventional pursuit. 

Hazel loves science, especially biology. She is shy. Her favorite pastime is to sit in the rusted-out truck in the goat pasture and read Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia, purchased at a yard sale for $10. Because Hazel loves biology, readers learn some biology, including the mnemonic for biological classification: “King Phillip came over for good soup” (kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species), and “Origin of the Species,” by Charles Darwin.

Also, fun fact: The 10-goat herd is protected by Pax, a guard donkey. Thanks to Hazel, Ilearned that donkeys hate canids (which includes both dogs and foxes) and will attack any creature in that family that approaches the pasture. I didn’t know that about donkeys and I’d wager most other readers don’t either.

Having to adapt to a new school is hard enough, but Hazel also learns that Mimi is pregnant. Hazel freaks out because Mimi got pregnant twice before and each time she lost the baby. This devastated all the members of the family and Hazel doesn’t want to risk that again. This is a major plot line and one I haven’t seen in a middle grade story before. The author does a really good job showing the emotional impact such a loss can have.

In both her new school and with Mimi’s news, Hazel tries to protect her heart and her psyche by withdrawing, or hibernating, until the baby comes (or does not) and until she can go to high school and be with Becca again.

Events conspire against her, no surprise. You’ll have to read the story to find out how it all plays out. 

Another reason, aside from the goat farm, that I enjoyed “Hazel’s Theory of Evolution” is because Bigelow does such a great job making her characters all very different: Hazel has two moms, one of whom is white and the other is Black; Becca’s family is Jewish and we get to see them celebrate Shabbat; Hazel makes two new friends, one of whom is Japanese-American and uses a wheelchair and the other who is a transgender girl. 

Each character is fully realized, with their own likes, dislikes, personality quirks and the like. They are not only there because of their differences. Bigelow does a particularly good job with Carina, the trans character (which I feel I can speak to from my own experiences). The author does not dwell on the hows and whys of Carina’s gender identity, but gives Carina many other qualities, a love of video games and building with Legos, a little crush on another character and a busy family life, so that the reader feels fully connected to her.

In an added gender-related topic, before Hazel’s family finds out the gender of the fetus, they have a whole discussion of intersex and trans and non-binary identities. 

This moment also ramps up Hazel’s anxiety about the baby. For Hazel, knowing the baby’s gender makes “… everything seem even more real, even more dangerous. And it didn’t have anything to do with whether the baby was (probably) a girl or (probably not) a boy. It was calling it she or he. An it was a thing. Things got lost or broken all the time. … A she or he was a person. A person could break your heart.”

That Hazel. She knows what’s what.

So, if you like goats, or donkeys, or stories about shy, unconventional kids learning to navigate the world, then “Hazel’s Theory of Evolution” should go on your “to be read” list.

This review first appeared in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette in October of 2021

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