The Tale of Despereaux is much like a fairy tale with a hero and a villain, light vs. dark, but it isn’t written in the typical fairy tale format. This novel is set up with four books and a coda.
The first book describes the hero, Despereaux Tilling. He was a unique mouse from birth. He was born with his eyes open, weighed half the amount a normal mouse would weigh and he had very large ears. Not only did he look different, but he acted differently as well. He didn’t scurry across the room looking left and right. He wouldn’t eat books either, he preferred to read them. It was there in the library castle where he discovered a book that touched his soul. He began to read it over and over. It was about a princess and a brave knight who serves, honors, and rescues her. As he is spending time in the castle library he hears music. Despereaux moves toward the sound only to discover Princess Pea and King Phillip. Despereaux believes that Princess Pea is his princess and he courageously moves toward her. As the King tries to scare Despereaux away, he calls out to the princess, “I honor you!” Alas, he is in love. However, he has broken a rule and the Mouse Council call a meeting to allow Despereaux to admit or deny the charges brought against him for speaking to humans. He admits his guilt and is sentenced to the dungeon.
The second book is about the villain, Chiaroscuro, also known as Roscuro. Kate DiCamaillo takes us back in time to tell us about Roscuro, the rat. He seemed to be a typical rat until he had a match held in front of his face. “From that moment forward, Roscuro showed an abnormal, inordinate interest in illumination of all sorts. He was always, in the darkness of the dungeon, on the lookout for light, the smallest slimmer, the tiniest shimmer. His rat soul longed inexplicably for it; he began to think that light was the only thing that gave life meaning, and he despaired that there was so little of it left to have.” This longing for light is what led him upstairs into the castle. He was drawn to the chandelier that sparkled so brightly. Roscuro managed to climb onto the chandelier only to be noticed by Princess Pea. She screamed out, “RAT!” For the first time Roscuro felt that being called a rat was “a curse, and insult, a word totally without light.” Roscuro felt terrible for his actions and as he ran off he looked back and heard the Princess cry out; “Go back to the darkness where you belong.” Now Roscuro’s heart was broken and he wanted REVENGE!
The third book is about Miggery Sow, a girl named after her father’s prize winning pig. Her mother dies and her father sells her to a stranger for a tablecloth and some cigarettes. The man she was sold to physically abused her, “clouting” her on the ears making her ears resemble that of cauliflower and she lost some of her hearing. Mig’s wish throughout the novel is to become a princess. Oddly enough, she lands herself a job in the castle. Her longing to be a princess allows her to be manipulated by Roscuro, so that he can have his revenge on Princess Pea.
The fourth book weaves all of the characters together to bring this story to its climax. We learn about forgiveness and hope, darkness and light. Who could ever imagine a happily ever after in this book?
Kate DiCamillo’s style of writing was unique. I have never encountered a book that uses a narrative type style that spoke directly to the reader. The narrator asked questions, “Reader, can you imagine your own father not voting against your being sent to the dungeon full of rats? Can you imagine him not saying one word in your defense?” Pointed out consequences, “Reader, you must know that an interesting fate (sometimes involving rats, sometimes not) awaits almost everyone, mouse or man, who does not confirm.” Clarified difficult vocabulary, “The word reader, was adieu. Do you know the definition of adieu? Don’t bother with your dictionary. I will tell you. Adieu is the French word for farewell.” Kate DiCamillo commented on the narrative voice in an interview. She stated, “It provides a sense of “It’s OK; everything will work out.” It lets the reader know that life is funny and hard at the same time.”
Timothy Basil Erring uses pencil to illustrate this book. It reflects the light and dark theme that is used throughout the story. The illustrations are framed and somewhat faded and distant because this has such a heavy underlying tone.
The design of this book is enticing. The pages on the edge are rough and jagged, as if a mouse had nibbled the pages. This Newberry Award winning novel by Kate DiCamillo speaks to the reader’s emotions, fears and our highest hopes.