“Reader, you must know that an interesting fate (sometimes involving rats, sometimes not) awaits almost everyone, mouse or man, who does not conform” (DiCamillo 2006, p. 25).
“Would you like to hear, reader, how it all unfolded? The story is not a pretty one. There is violence in it. And cruelty. But 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” (DiCamillo 2006, p. 183).
This book was incredibly sweet! As with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I remember seeing the movie for this book a long time ago. Unlike the C.S Lewis work, however, I did not remember anything about this story, making the book a fresh and exciting experience.
The Tale of Despereaux, as you might expect, follows the story of Despereaux, a tiny mouse with big ears and even bigger dreams. Shunned by his fellow mice for being different (and for talking to humans), Despereaux is thrown into the dungeon to be eaten by rats, but not before meeting and falling in love with the beautiful princess Pea. Spurred forward by his love for the princess and his desire to be an adventurous knight, Despereaux is able to survive the dungeon and save princess Pea from a vengeful rat named Chiaroscuro and a simple, misguided servant girl named Miggery Sow. The Tale of Despereaux is a modern fairy tale at its finest, with suspense, adventure, intrigue, and a whole lot of heart.
Once again, I found this tale to be both simple and cute, inviting children into a world where anything is possible, and where even a mouse can be a hero. In my opinion, the overall messages of this story are that love and hope are wonderful, and those who are different are usually the ones who have the best adventures (as the above quote implies). From his birth, Despereaux is seen as an oddity, a mouse with big ears who doesn’t act like a mouse. Despite this, his optimism, bravery, and love for the princess are what make him successful, delivering a subtle but wonderful message to the reader.
Similarly, the themes of redemption and forgiveness are explored in a way children can understand, without ever pandering to or talking down to the audience. For example, Roscuro turns to revenge after seeing the princess’s hatred for accidentally killing her mother, but realizes the error of his ways when she forgives him. Forgiveness also makes Despereaux feel better when he chooses to forgive his father, letting go of any anger or resentment he might have held. This, too, is a very deep and crucial message, delivered in a way that makes it easier for children to understand.
Grief, too, is explored in the way the kind bans soup after the death of his wife. As the book says:
“This is the danger of loving: No matter how powerful you are, no matter how many kingdoms you rule, you cannot stop those you love from dying. Making soup illegal, outlawing rats, these things soothed the poor king’s heart. And so we must forgive him” (p. 119).
This is a very simple, yet powerful, way to explain love and loss. As the narrator points out, the king’s actions may have seemed extreme, but they were done in an act of grief, something that we all experience and handle differently. While a younger reader might not immediately pick up on this theme due to the subtlety in which it is presented, older children (and adults like me) can look back on stories like Despereaux and appreciate these very complex themes presented in simple ways.
Despite the simplicity of the story, The Tale of Despereaux also features quite a bit of darkness, much like the original versions of the Grimm fairy tales. I was shocked at the abuse poor Miggery Sow had to endure, being beaten so badly that she became both “simple-minded” and nearly deaf. That is a concerning level of violence for a children’s book, though I agree that sometimes a little violence is necessary to convey a realistic story (even if the setting and characters behave in a way that’s fantastic). My problem, however, is that the violence is almost played for laughs rather than serious issues. Miggery is a sympathetic character, but also constantly mocked for being “dumb” and played as the comic relief.
The book’s treatment of Mig, to me, is the only real mixed message the book sends, and the positive messages outweigh it enough that I don’t see it being a huge problem. That being said, I would hope it doesn’t encourage kids that it’s okay to bully and make fun of those who are different, especially if they have disabilities or aren’t as smart as other children. Of course, Despereaux himself is different, and played as the hero, so perhaps this isn’t the message the author intended to convey at all.
Overall, I really enjoyed this story, yet another that I missed out on during my own childhood. I remember readingBecause of Winn-Dixie and The Tiger Rising as a child, but this is a Kate DiCamillo story that unfortunately slipped by me when I was younger. After reading it, however, I can honestly say that I’m very glad I gave it a try!
DiCamillo, K., & Ering, T. B. (2006). The tale of Despereaux: Being the story of a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread. Cambridge, Mass: Candlewick Press.