Once upon a time, a middle-aged lady walked into the children’s section of a bookstore. As she browsed books, one title stood out to her: The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo. Or rather the subtitle caught her eye: Being the story of a mouse, some soup, and a spool of thread. Immediately, this lady knew she must buy this book with its fanciful title. And so she did. She also never regretted it. 🙂
Of course, a cover can deceive one. In this case, however, the inside content is just as enchanting as the title. DiCamillo likes to consider herself a storyteller and she has rightfully earned the label. Her style is simple, sweet, and magical: “This story begins within the walls of a castle, with the birth of a mouse. A small mouse. The last mouse born to his parents and the only one of his litter to be born alive….” In every paragraph, DiCamillo transports me back to my childhood days when adults spellbound me with reading aloud and when I devoured fairy tales from all over the world. Indeed, The Tale of Despereaux is a perfect book to read to restless students, doting pets, and everyone else for that matter who likes fantasies. A gentle tale full of adventure and warmth and heart, I can imagine being told around a campfire. It’s also a most mesmerizing narrative to read when thunder claps overhead or sleep alludes: “Have I mentioned that beneath the castle there was a dungeon? In the dungeon, there were rats. Large rats. Mean rats. Despereaux was destined to meet those rats.”
Superlatives aside, let me focus on the characters in The Tale of Despereaux, all of whom entrance me. Consider first our main character. Despereaux is not only the last and smallest mouse to be born, but he’s born with eyes open and ears too big. Even more alarming, Despereaux shows no interest in the things a mouse should such as food. Instead he shows interest in the things a mouse should avoid such as humans. Then there’s Roscuro, a rat, who believes the meaning of life is light. Unfortunately, every other rat despises light, as well as mice and people. Instead, every other rat believes the meaning of light is to bring suffering to mice and to people and anything else that crosses their path. Are you noticing a pattern? Rarely will you meet such oddball heroes and villains! Finally, there’s Miggery Sow. She was five when her mother died and her father sold her. Just as bad, her name comes from the family pig, of all things. Mig proves instrumental in getting our mouse hero and our rat villain to meet, along with being part of a diabolical plan to imprison the princess.
One of my struggling readers picked The Tale of Despereaux to read as his independent choice book with me. I enjoyed talking about themes with him, especially that of conformity. My student will enter middle school next year and so is at the unenviable stage where he wants to belong. Some days this meant he acted silly in my class instead of paying attention to my instruction. Other days this meant he tried to talk tough or feign interests that didn’t really come natural to him. There were also those rare days when my student would remove himself from the crowd so that he could focus on his assignments. Some days he even admitted to liking to read and to other tastes that caused his peers to shake their heads. The thing is my student has dreams. Just like Despereaux, who wanted to serve and protect the princess. That means my student sometimes found himself unable to follow the crowd. But this also means being super brave because, as Despereaux comes to realize, “an interesting fate waits almost anyone who does not conform”.
There are many more themes I could talk about, many more characters I could discuss, and many more superlatives about DiCamillo’s style that I could share. I love The Tale of Despereaux as much now as I did in 2004 when I first read it. DiCamillo has said that stories are light or in other words bring hope into darkness. May The Tale of Despereaux shine into your world today.
My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.
How would you rate this book?