Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Tale of Despereaux: A Small Mouse with a Big Heart

The Tale of Despereaux was published in
2003 by Candlewick.
Image courtesy of
In The Tale of Despereaux, author Kate DiCamillo once again explores the power of love and the transformative relationships that can occur between humans and animals; in this case, that relationship involves a mouse called Despereaux and a princess with a heart of kindness, empathy, hate, and sadness.  By weaving multiple stories together to create one complete tapestry, DiCamillo has written a unique, fantastical tale. 

Despereaux is a different mouse.  He is about half the size of a regular mouse at only two ounces but has rather big, velvety ears.  He enjoys listening to music and can read.  He especially enjoys fairy tales.  It is his penchant for music that gets him into trouble in the first place, as it causes him to sit at the foot of the king and later, in the hand of the princess, as he sways in tune with the music.  It is during this serenade that he falls in love with the princess and hopes for his own "happily ever after" just like in the books he reads.  When the other mice see Despereaux romancing the princess and sitting so close to a human, they call an emergency meeting and send him to a dungeon, a dark maze at the bottom of the castle filled with rats.  Oh, yes, and no mouse that has ever gone into the dungeon has come back alive.   When Despereaux learns about a rat's plot to steal the princess and keep her locked up in the dungeon, he realizes that he must be her knight in shiny armor to save her, a big act of bravery and courage to match his heart, if not his physical size.  

The plot of Despereaux has rich elements of fantasy that would make this book an interesting read for any author to write: talking animals; a deep, dark scary dungeon; comical characters, such as Cook and her constant "Ho-hee-"ing or Miggory Sow and her redundant use of the word "Gor;" and a counsel of mice to list just a few things. However, any author didn't just write this novel; Kate DiCamillo did, and it is her examination of good vs. evil and light vs. dark that make this tale so memorable.  

In fact, DiCamillo writes that she hopes her readers were able to find some of their own "light" after reading the novel.  This notion is suggested by Gregory the Jailer when Despereaux first arrives in the dungeon.  You see, Gregory promises to save Desperaux's life if the small mouse can tell him a story, as stories are beacons of light.  Other characters create their own light by having "hope."  This is true for Mig, a poor girl without a family who hopes to be a princess one day to get out of her miserable life of servitude and abuse.  Even if everyone else thinks it's impossible for Mig to be a princess - she's "not the sharpest knife in the drawer," after all - having hope "really makes no difference to anyone but you."

Further, DiCamillo teaches readers to be empathetic for the characters that she has crafted by revealing their "heart maps" and exploring what has shaped each character's personality.  She even uses the word "empathy" within the novel and provides an example of Princess Pea's empathy, allowing young readers to use context to infer the meaning of this rich word.

In fact, DiCamillo allows readers to do the same thing for words like "perfidy."  It is the personable conversation that she has with readers as she tells the story that sets this novel apart from all others.   For example, when demonstrating the horror of the dungeon, she even suggests that she and the reader go into the dungeon together and hold tight to one another so as to feel secure!  While reading, I felt connected to the author, as if we were on a journey together.  I felt that she truly cared about me as I learned about Despereaux's tale, and young readers will surely feel the same.  

The Tale of Despereaux is a reminder that there is light and darkness within all of us; however, all humans are capable of shedding light onto the world.  Some people, too, are missing that light and need others to reveal it to them through kindness and empathy.  For me, the message of Despereaux will live on long after I have closed its cover.  

To check out The Tale of Despereaux, a Newberry Medal winner, or other books by Kate DiCamillo, visit your local library. 

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