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Book Review: The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

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I selected The Tale of Despereaux as a read-aloud book with my daughter on the recommendation of a friend. On the surface, it appears to be a simple hero story told in the style of a classic fairy tale. There is a king and a castle and a would-be knight living only to serve and save the princess. This book has a deeper layer, however, that speaks of courage, the importance of being true to oneself and finding one’s calling in life.

Despereaux is a mouse who is born the wrong size, with the wrong ears, and who frightened his elders early on because he was born “with his eyes open.” As he grows, he doesn’t develop an interest in typical mouse pursuits and he is somewhat spurned by the mouse community.

One day, he follows the sound of music through the walls and finds himself in the princess’ room, where the king is playing the guitar and singing for his daughter. Despereaux finds himself hopelessly in love with the princess. When the mouse community finds out about this, they condemn him to the dungeon where they expect that he will be eaten by rats.

The book is organized into several “Books” internally, each of which introduces us to another central character, such as Gregory the jailer, Chiaroscuro the rat who loved light, and Miggery Sow, an unfortunate girl who was sold by her father for a red tablecloth and some cigarettes. The author artfully weaves the independent lives and minds these characters into Despereaux’s fate.

As the story progresses, Despereaux learns to trust in the quest to which he has committed himself. By observing the situations he finds himself in and developing courage to both find the resources he needs and forgive those who tried to consign him to death, he is able to come to a solution to save the princess and make a better life for himself.

Few books for young readers are endowed with as much psychological realism and character contrast as The Tale of Despereaux is, with such wholeness in terms of the motivating psychology behind character’s actions. Two such constructs are worthy of comment here.

First, I would like to comment on the contrast between the way in which Despereaux and Chiaroscuro differed in their reactions to similar pain. Their initial life experiences were somewhat similar. Despereaux was rejected by his community because he did not engage in normal mouse activity, such as “scurrying.” Chiaroscuro was a rat, who did not behave like a normal rat. He was drawn to light, despite his community insisting that rats belong in the dungeon. It was his foray out of the dungeon and into the light that indirectly caused the Queen’s death and therefore further persecution of rats.

Despite the similarity of their plights, Despereaux and Chiaroscuro have drastically different psychological responses. Despereaux continues on in his belief that he can save the princess and be a knight, despite the grave doubts he has at times when his chances of survival seem slim. Chiaroscuro falls into evilness and rejects his dreams of finding a way to live in the light. Instead, he dedicates himself to causing suffering for those who live in the light. The contrast of characters is poignant in its ability to point out that we all have a choice in how we are going to confront difficulty.

The other character I would like to discuss is Miggery Sow. She is constructed as a very injured soul. Sold by her father to a man who beat her about the head until her ears became deformed, she sees the princess one day as a child and develops a dream that she can be a princess one day. Uneducated and clearly intellectually challenged, she does not understand that a common person can never become a princess.

Because of her internal longing and her impossible dream, she is easily led into the plan of Chiaroscuro to kidnap the princess. She wants to realize her dream so badly, that she believes Chiaroscuro when he tells her that they will kidnap the princess, teach her to be a serving girl and then switch Miggery Sow into the princess’ position. She is such a desperate soul that she truly believes no one would notice and she would be accepted as a princess.

The character of Miggery Sow inspires compassion for people who are so desperate to achieve their goals that they are willing to believe anything, follow anyone who tells them they can bring those dreams to fruition. Her plight serves as a cautionary tale for those who would injure someone so and those who would be tempted to be similarly misled

I highly recommend The Tale of Despereaux, in particular as a read-together book. The depth of the story and characters provide ample opportunities to discuss important emotional and psychological concepts with your children in a way that they can relate to and understand.

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  • Sara

    My daughter bought this book through scholastic, but hadn’t read it yet, when I picked it up the other day and started reading (alone). It kept me captivated to the end, but I’m not so sure I’ll be sharing it yet with my daughter – the subject matter seemed really dark to me. It was SO well written though, I’m looking forward to her reading it when she matures a little (she is 8, and very sensitive about suffering… the topic of slavery that is presented every year in class during Black History Month always leads to at least a couple of sleepless nights). I hope I’m not underestimating what she can handle :) How old was your child, when you read it together?

  • Mustache Joe

    This book is for 7-10 year olds ..Let your daughter read it..Its not that bad!

  • Mr.Newman

    This book is almost designed for a classroom teacher to read to their class. It even does the questioning for you!

  • ?

    I want to read it but i do not know if it is worth it to read it, it looks like a babyish tale about a mouse