What was it about?
Despereaux is a tiny mouse, born to Lester and Antoinette Tilling. In his first year of life, his brother Furlough notices that Despereaux does not act like the typical mouse. His interests lie not in finding bread crumbs but in reading books and listening to music. But because the Tilling family lives in the castle of a powerful king, Despereaux’s odd behavior is cause for alarm.
One day, Furlough sees Despereaux dangerously close to the Princess Pea and her father. Despereaux is standing in the middle of the room with one of his large ears dilated and turned toward the princess, the source of the music in the room. Suddenly, Princess Pea notices the mouse, and picks him off the floor. She then proceeds to talks to him. At first, the king mistakes Despereaux for a fly, but the girl eventually convinces him of his mistake. The king does not share the princess’s interest in the mouse. He reminds the princess that it was a mouse that indirectly brought about her mother’s death. So, with “I honor you” still on his lips, Despereaux is forced to return to his hole.
Furlough races back to his father to give him the alarming news. Despereaux has violated the most important rule among mice. He has been in the presence of a human and by doing so, has jeopardized the safety of the other mice in the castle. Lester gathers together the whole mouse community and holds a Mouse Council to decide on his son’s fate. After hearing from the witnesses, the Mouse Council, with Lester’s blessing, motions to send Despereaux to the dungeon where he is expected to be destroyed by the rats.
Despereaux may be the hero of the story, but he is not the only important character in the book. The Tale of Despereaux is a tapestry with characters woven into it like different colored threads. The book is divided into four parts. Each of the first three parts introduces the reader to a different character whose individual story is uniquely connected to the fates of the other characters. The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo is ambitious in its plot structure and unconventional in its storytelling, but because the hero is an odd, misunderstood mouse, the style of the story fits its subject matter.
What did I think of it?
While the story was quite interesting, I was shocked by the level of violence and abuse in the book. None of the parents love their children, but commit perfidy (a word the author loves) to get what they want. In Book 3: Gor! The Tale of Miggery Sow, a young girl is sold by her father to an abusive relative for a red tablecloth, cigarettes, and a hen. But one passage from that section really caught my attention:
“[Miggory] was twelve years old. Her mother was dead. Her father had sold her. Her Uncle, who wasn’t her uncle at all, had clouted her until she was almost deaf. And she wanted, more than anything in the world, to be a little princess wearing a golden crown and riding a high-stepping white horse.”
My full reactions to this passage will be elucidated in a future post. Suffice it to say that I felt that there were themes in the story that were not appropriate for children. I am leaving my criticism of certain themes in The Tale of Despereaux for a future post because I realize that they contradict my feelings toward the equally dark children’s stories of Roald Dahl.
I was also quite irritated by the frequent asides to the Reader. The asides really disrupted the telling of the story, and were quite unnecessary. A story should be interesting enough that a child is naturally excited to read on to the end. Instead, the author’s asides resembled the comments of an overzealous parent who is trying to convince his/her child to read the book. These asides were also irritating because there was way too much telling and not enough showing. When characters were untruthful, the author straight up told the reader. I found that offensive because it seemed as if the author underestimated the intelligence of the Reader. Even if that was not her intention, it sure came across that way.
Overall, the story itself was quite captivating. I thought the organization and design of the book were very lovely. However, I do not think that it should have won the Newbery Medal. I have a feeling that the librarians chose this work primarily for its creative storytelling.
“The world is dark, and light is precious.”
This book counts toward the Newbery Medal Challenge.