book thoughts: A Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

DiCamillo, K. The Tale of Despereaux.  Illustrated by

Timothy Basil Ering.  Candlewick Press, 2003.  270 pages. 

$17.99  ISBN 0-7636-1722-9


Kate DiCamillo has made a name for herself in children’s literature with titles such as The Tiger Rising and Because of Winn Dixie.  Both of these realistic stories featured a child that came in contact with an animal, and that contact changed their lives forever.  In her latest book, The Tale of Despereaux, she turns things around with the fantastical story of an animal that meets a child which alters the animal’s perception of the world around it.

              Despereauxis considered small, even for a mouse, but, like all heroes, there ismore to him than meets the eye.  Instead of munching on the librarybooks, Despereaux reads their tales of faraway lands and knights comingto the rescue.  Instead of hiding when he hears human voices,Despereaux seeks out the sound and discovers the beauty of music. Instead of holding his tongue in the presence of the king, he speaksout and breaks the mouse code.  And that is only the start of hisadventure, an adventure that intertwines with many other residents of the castle

              The Tale of Despereaux moves along at a quick pace.  Even though the book is 270 pages long, most chapters are just 4-6 pages, and one page usually contains an illustration.  With a large font size and generous margins, this book could be read by a confident 3rd grader reader, but would also fit easily into the hands of an older child who does not have as much experience reading longer chapter books.  Either child would be familiar with the fairy tale framework of this story – the outsider that becomes a hero, the villain, in this case a rat named Roscuro, seeking revenge, and a princess in distress. 

Alsocommon in fairy tales is an omniscient narrator.  DiCamillo never giveshim a name, but Despereaux’s narrator interjects with questionsdirected to the reader, to help them understand some of the more upsetting aspects of the story, such as when the Mouse Council votes to send Despereaux to the dungeon:

“Reader, can you imagine your own father not voting against your being sent to a dungeon full of rats?  Can you imagine him not saying one word in your defense?”

The careful tone of the narrator keeps these intense events from overwhelming the younger reader, by assuring them that they know things will come around in the end (and the reader knows this is true because that is how fairy tales work). 

              The Tale of Despereaux is an endearing story that has something for every child.  Notonly a great choice for the independent reader, this book would alsomake a good read aloud selection for older school children.  Like a hotbowl of soup, the classic fairy tale themes make the story bothenticing and comforting, and clearly deserved of the Newberry Medal.

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