The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate diCamillo (A Book Review)
Obscenely Large Ears, Even for A Mouse
An Unlikely Hero - Main Response to This Book
I have read this short but intense children's chapter book three times over the last seven years - by myself, with my children, and most recently, with a large group comprising both adults and children. The reaction was uniform; adults and small children alike considered it, at first, sorrowful, "a nasty story," and even cruel - tempered by beauty, unusual descriptions, and virtue. Everyone could see how the main character was, to some degree, like himself - an unlikely hero, music-loving, and also, by nature, defiant of customs in such a way as to be thought "wrong-headed". The main character himself is a mouse - a mouse with obscenely large ears, and an un-mouselike nature.
Some of the cruelties committed amongst the characters - belittlement, perfidy, physical abuse, and closed-mindedness - felt too close for comfort for some of those listening...many of whom had emotionally abusive backgrounds. But the hope, courage, and forgiveness displayed by others in the story stamped out, at the end, much of the neglect and horror...and turned a "nasty story" into a triumphant, big-hearted adventure, in the tradition of the best fairy tales.
In the words of one listener, a boy of six who may some day grow up to be a knight..."[Despereaux's] going to win - isn't he?" The mouse had just strapped on his needle-sword, and was preparing to rescue his princess from her dungeon-dwelling captor. Reader, was it possible that the light he had - the light from faith, hope, forgiveness, and music - was enough to make a difference in this darkness?
Wet Through, and Desiring Some Light, Despereaux is Still a Brave Mouse
Making Some Light, Despereaux Style (Story Synopsis)
"I will tell myself a story," said Despereaux. "I will make some light. Let's see. It will begin this way: Once upon a time. Yes. Once upon a time, there was a mouse who was very, very small. Exceptionally small. And there was a beautiful human princess whose name was Pea. And it so happened that this mouse was the one who was selected by fate to serve the princess, to honor her, and to save her from the darkness of a terrible dungeon." This story actually cheered up Despereaux considerably. His eyes became accustomed to the gloom, and he moved down the stairs more quickly, more surely, whispering to himself the tale of a devious rat and a fat serving girl and a beautiful princess and a brave mouse and some soup and a spool of red thread. It was a story, in fact, very similar to the one you are reading right now, and the telling of it gave Despereaux strength.
Tone of the Story
Stories, too, are light, he knew. Come, Reader, let the light chase down your own darkness.
Despereaux is an unusual story in that it focuses on the things in life that may trap a soul in darkness. Most of the characters in the story are mean, ignorant, or disillusioned and depressed. Despereaux, while born a belittled, sickly runt, is unlike his family and most of his mouse social circle. He loves music and is interested in beauty more so than food. He also feels that Light is the most important thing in life.
The first time he heard music, he said it sounded like honey. Honey and sunlight go together. Despereaux is a wise mouse for knowing this.
Music That Sounds a Bit Like Honey
Heroes Make Tough Decisions
When Despereaux falls in love with the princess who lives in the castle where he was born, he falls in love. He talks to her, and sees that she is more like light than most of the creatures he knows.
When she is later kidnapped for ransom by a miserable creature (a rat who has had an unfortunate experience involving soup), Despereaux realizes that he is the only one who can rescue her. He's the only one who is focused enough on compassion and light to brave the darkness of the dungeon (and the king's edict against soup!), and go after her.
What happens to the rat, though? Is he redeemed from the Darkness, too? And what of the others who have been hurt by the Darkness? Are compassion and bravery enough to help them out of the shadows?
You'll have to read and find out.
Light and Music matter. Compassion and Bravery are necessary attributes of a hero. We could all do with being a bit more like Despereaux.
This book is an excellent read-aloud, supposing you have children in your life. It's a good read to yourself, too. I'll be surprised if your soul is not drawn to greater Light by this story.
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- Kate DiCamillo
author of books for children and adults, her books include Because of Winn-Dixie, Tiger Rising, The Tale of Despereaux, Mercy Watson, and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane
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