The Tale of Despereaux
Scholastic, 2003 270 pgs.
Despereaux is a tiny mouse with a big problem.He is drawn to stories and music and finds himself in love with a human princess named Pea. Worst of all he doesn't behave like other mice are expected to and somehow missed the gene to scurry. Because of his attachment to the princess, Despereaux is sent to the bowels of the dungeon, from which mice do not return. Now we meet our anti-hero, a rat named Roscuro, who finds himself unnaturally drawn to the light. An unlucky series of events leads Roscuro above ground to the living quarters of the family, resulting in the demise of the queen and the outlawing of soup, which is a hardship to the entire kingdom. Next we follow the adventures of peasant Miggery Sow, who was sold by her father into servant-hood, treated shabbily, and finds herself working at the castle as a serving girl to the Princess Pea. Mig wants to be a princess and allows herself to get drawn into a dastardly plan to kidnap the princess by Roscuro, who wants royal revenge. All of our characters come together in a climatic crescendo, where Despereaux proves that even small creatures can save the day. Old hurts are healed, old wrongs righted, and our heroes are restored to their rightful place in the universe, more or less, in a satisfactory ending.
Brilliant author and last year's National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, Kate DiCamillo won her first of two Newbery medals for this title and rightly so. The story appears to be simple, yet contains layers that merge at the end, resulting in a sophisticated and satisfying read. It is hard to find non-series fiction of a high quality for younger readers. Despereaux fills the bill, making this title a favorite for teachers and librarians alike. I have re-read this title to prepare for my end-of-the-year book discussion extravaganza for both of my book clubs, where we will read the book, watch the movie and then compare the two, while eating ice cream. Soup would be more fitting, but I would have a book club mutiny, so am sticking with ice cream. The Tale of Despereaux reads like a classic fairy tale, complete with a princess, yet is not girlie. It is filled with adventure and unlikely situations that are written by DiCamillo's capable hand to appear likely. The generous illustrations invite reluctant readers to the party and the wide margins and short chapters help the intended audience to turn pages quickly. DiCamillo offers not just a great story, but food for thought as well. She sprinkles difficult vocabulary throughout the book, encouraging readers to look certain words up, such as "perfidy". Themes explored are the power of light, forgiveness, storytelling, and, of course, soup. One of my all-time favorite book selections for young people, it is sure to be enjoyed by a wide audience. This book is a solid choice for all young readers and continues to be a modern children's classic.