Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

Cross posted at The Well-Read Child

The Tale of Despereaux has everything I look for in a good fairy tale: a hero, a damsel in distress, an evil villain, and an exciting plot, full of suspense, where ultimately good triumphs over evil. Kate DiCamillo brilliantly includes all of these elements in an unconventional and quirky way that kids will love.

Our hero, Despereaux is a tiny mouse with “obscenely large ears” who lives in a castle with his large mouse family. The runt and only survivor of his mother’s last litter, he has always been different and a source of embarrassment for his family. In addition to his size, he doesn’t enjoy hunting for crumbs and prefers reading books instead of eating them. He even commits the ultimate offense of talking to humans and even let one, the beautiful Princess Pea, touch him. GASP! It’s this offense that sentences him to be eaten by rats in the dungeon. He manages to escape this sentence but soon has to return as he sets upon his quest to save the Princess.

Our villain is the rat, Chiaroscuro, Roscuro for short. He led a normal and rotten rat life in the dungeon until a match was lit in front of his face, and he began to crave light. It’s this craving for light that brings him up into the castle and ultimately results in the Queen’s death. Something happens during this incident that causes him to hate the Princess Pea, and he develops a plan to destroy her.

Our damsel in distress is the kind and lovely Princess Pea who manages to make Despereaux fall in love with her at first sight. But she’s actually kind of boring—the character I liked the most was Miggery Sow.

Named after her father’s favorite pig, Miggery Sow’s, Mig for short, mother died when she was a young girl. Her father sold her for a red tablecloth, a hen, and cigarettes to a cruel man who “clouted” her on the ear so much that she lost part of her hearing and ended up with ears that resembled cauliflowers. A stroke of luck gets the slow-witted Mig a job at the castle, where she desperately wants to become a Princess. Roscuro uses this to his advantage and tricks Mig into helping him execute his plan to destroy the Princess. Readers will feel sympathy for Mig as they learn about her background, but will also roll with laughter when she misinterprets what people say to her because her poor hearing.

These eccentric characters, along with an engaging, fast, and peculiar plot make The Tale of Despereaux a fantastic book that many children will love. I particularly liked the narrator’s frequent asides to the reader. While some criticize this as distracting, I think it actually draws readers in and makes for an excellent read aloud. For example, in one section, we learn about Mig’s arrival at the castle and her inability to find a job she was successful at completing. To help set the stage for this section, the narrator says,

“Reader, as the teller of this tale, it is my duty from time to time to utter some hard and rather disagreeable truths. In the spirit of honesty, then, I must inform you that Mig was the tiniest big lazy. And, too, she was not the sharpest knife in the drawer. That is, she was a bit slow-witted.” (p. 152)

So what made this book win the Newbery Medal in 2004? I think it’s because Ms. DiCamillo skillfully weaves in some great themes that can lead to many discussions, including accepting differences, living with honor, treating others with respect, the power of hope, and more. She manages to do all this through a charming story that children of a variety of ages will enjoy. It’s fast-paced and a great choice for a read aloud to younger children, and kids who are in the 8-10 range will be able to read it with ease.

Kids above ten may like it but pretend it’s too childish, but I don’t want to give off the impression that it’s meant solely for younger children. Along with its lighthearted and funny parts, there is death and a little violence. But here’s how the narrator explains one part that is particularly dark.

"The story is not a pretty one. There is violence in it. And cruelty. But the stories that are not pretty have a certain value, too. I suppose. Everything, as you well know (having lived in this world long enough to have figured out a thing or two for yourself), cannot always be sweetness and light." (p. 183)

If your kids are Harry Potter fans, these parts are certainly not as dark as scenes in those books—not even close in fact. I wouldn’t have a problem sharing it with younger children, but be prepared to explain these issues if your young kids have questions.

I finished this book about two weeks ago and have sat down numerous times to write my review, but I’ve actually a hard time explaining it and wrapping it up into a succinct little description because it’s different than any other book I’ve read, but in a good way. In fact, I don’t think I’m doing it justice now. The bottom line is that I highly recommend it, and I think you and your children will like it just as much as I did.

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