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The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

An Unusual Fairy Tale

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cover art  - The Tale of Despereaux
Candlewick Press

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The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo, is an odd and engrossing fairy tale. The hero, Despereaux Tilling, is a mouse with large ears. While of the same high literary quality as her previous two children's books, Because of Winn-Dixie, a Newbery Honor Book, and The Tiger Rising, a National Book Award finalist, and also geared to the same 8-12 year old age range, The Tale of Despereaux is distinctly different from other children's books by Kate DiCamillo. It has a lot in common with Grimm's fairy tales and makes a terrific read aloud for younger children.

Yet, it, too, is an award winner. On January 12, 2004, Kate DiCamillo was awarded the prestigious 2004 John Newbery Medal for The Tale of Despereaux.  According to the American Library Association (ALA), the Newbery Medal is awarded annually "to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children."

The subtitle of The Tale of Despereaux gives the reader a clue that this is not an ordinary book. It states, Being the story of a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread. What prompted Kate DiCamillo to write such a book? According to the author, "My best friend's son asked if I would write a story for him. 'It's about an unlikely hero,' he said, 'with exceptionally large ears.' When DiCamillo asked him, "What happened to the hero," his response was, "I don't know. That's why I want you to write this story, so we can find out."

The result is a wildly entertaining novel with some important messages about being yourself and redemption. The characters include a very special mouse with an affinity for music, a princess named Pea, and Miggery Sow, a poorly treated, slow-witted serving girl. Since every tale needs a villian, even a sometimes sympathetic one, there is a rat named Roscuro to fill that role. This odd assortment of characters is drawn together because of their desire for something more, but it is Despereaux Tilling, the unlikely hero with large ears, who, along with the narrator, is the star of the show. As the narrator states,

"Reader, you must know that an interesting fate (sometimes involving rats, sometimes not) awaits almost everyone, man or mouse, who does not conform."

The unnamed narrator adds wit, humor, and intelligence to the story, frequently speaking directly to the reader, asking questions, admonishing the reader, pointing out the consequences of certain actions, and sending the reader to the dictionary to look up unknown words. Indeed, her use of language is one of the gifts that Kate DiCamillo brings to the story, along with her imaginative storytelling, character development, and "voice."

It was interesting to me to see how Kate DiCamillo incorporated several of the central themes of her other two books, parental abandonment and redemption, in The Tale of Despereaux. Parental abandonment comes in several forms in DiCamillo's books: a parent leaving the family forever, a parent dying, or a parent withdrawing emotionally.

Despereaux has always been different from his siblings and when his actions result in life-threatening punishment, his father does not defend him. Princess Pea's mother died as a result of seeing a rat in her soup. As a result, her father has withdrawn and has decreed that soup may no long be served anywhere in his kingdom. Miggery Sow was sold into servitude by her father after her mother died.

However, Despereaux's adventures change the lives of the adults as well as the children and the rat. These changes hinge on forgiveness and again emphasize a central theme: "Every action, reader, no matter how small, has a consequence." I found this an extremely satisfying book, with lots of adventure, wit, and wisdom.

The Tale of Despereaux - My Recommendation

The Tale of Despereaux was first published in 2003 by Candlewick Press. The book itself is beautifully designed, with high-quality paper with torn edges (I am not sure what you call that, but it looks great). It is illustrated with strange and beguiling, dense pencil drawings by Timonthy Basil Ering. Each of the four books of the novel has a title page, with an intricate border by Ering.

This is the first time that I have correctly predicted which book would win the Newbery Medal. I hope you and your children enjoy the book as much as I did. I highly recommend The Tale of Despereaux, both as an unusual fairy tale for 8-12 year olds and as a read aloud for families to share and younger children to also enjoy.

With the coming of the movie version of The Tale of Despereaux in December 2008, came a number of movie tie-in books and a handsome special boxed edition of The Tale of Despereaux that features color illustrations on both the box and the cover of the book. This special edition of The Tale of Despereaux would make a wonderful gift for any child who cherishes the story and loves to reread or hear it again and again. Compare prices. (ISBN: 9780763629281)

The Tale of Despereaux - Resources for Teachers

The book's publisher, Candlewick Press, has an excellent 20-page Teacher's Guide you can download, with detailed activities, including questions, for each section of the book. The Multnomah County Library in Oregon has a helpful one-page The Tale of Despereaux Discussion Guide on its website.

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