Monday, July 7, 2008

The Tale of Despereaux

The Tale of Despereaux
DiCamillo, Kate. 2006. The Tale of Despereaux: Being the tale of a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread. Ill. by Timothy Basil Ering. New York: Scholastic.
ISBN 0439 692202

I thought I'd post this old review because The Tale of Despereaux is due out soon as a movie. I saw the previews the other night. My daughter and I both thought that, given the wonderful cinematic opportunity that this book offers, the previews did not look promising. The characters appear much too "cute." Perhaps it will be better than we think. I hope so. The book, however, is on.

Plot Summary:
The Tale of Despereaux is a fairy tale with an unlikely hero in Despereaux, the undersized mouse who falls in love with Pea, the beautiful princess. The lives of Pea, Despereaux, the king, a rat, a serving girl, a cook, a jailer, a prisoner, and a host of mice and rats are entwined in this tale of adversity, triumph, and forgiveness.

Critical Analysis:
The Tale of Despereaux: Being the story of a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread is a modern fantasy with many of the elements of high fantasy. Kate DiCamillo’s Newbery award-winning title blends anthropomorphism, heroism, the battle between good and evil, and a forgotten age into a delightful tale. The story’s unlikely hero is Despereaux, a diminutive mouse who falls in love with Pea, a human princess. The tale is divided into four books, the first three tell the tales of Despereaux, the serving girl Miggery Sow, and Roscuro the rat; the fourth brings them all together in the struggle between light and dark.

Despereaux’s honesty, humbleness, and earnestness draw the reader in immediately, as does the story’s narrator, who frequently entreats and enlightens the reader. “What will become of her? You must, frightened though you may be, read on and see for yourself. Reader, it is your duty.” When Despereaux’s brother encourages him to nibble on a book from the king’s library, he replies, “I couldn’t possibly……It would ruin the story.” He revels in the stories of “once upon a time,” and fancies himself a knight (although armed with a sewing needle, rather than a sword)"I honor you!" he shouts out to Pea, while scampering away from her angry father's big foot.

The theme of the story is light vs. darkness, both literally and figuratively. The Princess, the castle, and soup (!) are light and goodness; the dungeon and the rats are darkness and evil. Despereaux, fond of music and good books, and prone to fainting spells is on a heroic, almost Quixotic quest, to first save himself and then the princess. He is marked for death by the red thread of the Mouse Council, of which his own father is a member. In the dungeon he encounters a jailer, a prisoner, and the rats. A subplot involves a serving girl, Miggery Sow,who wishes to supplant the princess, and the devious rat, Roscuro.

Despereaux is loyal, courageous, and valiant (fainting spells notwithstanding), but the tale’s true message is that of forgiveness. Despereaux’s small size is not indicative of his big heart. He forgives his father for pronouncing his death, even before his safety has been secured. The princess, too, forgives the rat, Roscuro, the very rat that caused her mother’s death by falling into her soup. They may not all live “happily ever after,” but those who seek it will find some measure of salvation.

The story is funny and enchanting – a quick and thoroughly enjoyable read, but it has a message as well….the power of honesty and forgiveness for redemption. (Delicately and humorously illustrated in black and white sketches by Timothy Basil Ering)

Review Excerpts:
In the August 2003, issue of School Library Journal (Jones, Toth, et al), write "In her observations of the political machinations and follies of rodent and human societies, she reminds adult readers of George Orwell. But the unpredictable twists of plot, the fanciful characterizations, and the sweetness of tone are DiCamillo's own. This expanded fairy tale is entertaining, heartening, and, above all, great fun."

My 11-year old daughter liked the book because she enjoyed "reading the same story from everyone's point of view."

For readers enjoying this book, suggest Kate DiCamillo's newest book, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

The Tale of Despereaux is a great read-aloud for school.

The Scholastic website, suggests writing letters of encouragment to Despereaux. This could be a fun activity to do before the ending is revealed.

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