Newbery 2004, The Tale of Despereaux

The Tale of Despereaux:
Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread

By Kate DiCamillo
Illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering
First edition 2003 published by Candlewick Press

Thanks to a wonderful fourth grade teacher who reads this book aloud to her class each year, The Tale of Despereaux is a favorite of my two youngest children. It made my daughter’s birthday wish list three years ago, and recently my son joined in the chorus of, “Mom, you HAVE to read Despereaux!”

Finally, I have.

Despereaux is the youngest in the Tilling family, a disappointingly small, weak, sickly mouse, born – much to his family’s dismay – with his eyes open.

“This is the last,” proclaimed Antoinette from her bed. “I will have no more mice babies. They are hard on my beauty. They ruin, for me, my looks. This is the last one. No more.”

“The last one,” said the father. “And he’ll be dead soon. He can’t live. Not with his eyes open like that.”

But reader, he did live.

This is his story.

As he grows, Despereaux never quite fits in with the rest of the castle’s mouse community, refusing to search for crumbs and chew on books like a regular mouse, but choosing instead to savor the beauty in music and fairy tales. Left to pursue this very un-mouselike behavior, Despereaux eventually discovers – and falls in love with – the Princess Pea. And there, his adventure begins.

Despereaux’s tale includes an interesting cast of characters; King Phillip and Princess Pea, a judgmental community of mice, Gregory the jailer, Chiaroscuro the rat, Miggery Sow, the abandoned and abused servant girl. Each has his own life experiences and resulting ambitions, bringing Despereaux to his ultimate challenge. The story is a tale of good and evil, lightness and dark, with underlying themes of empathy, courage, love, forgiveness and the acceptance of differences.

With a storyteller’s narrative style, the author addresses the reader directly throughout the story, contemplating the deeper ideas within the tale. This unique narration, paired with short, concise chapters, makes The Tale of Despereaux a perfect read-aloud story. And one that is hard to put down.

Despereaux learns many lessons in his quest for love and “once upon a time,” lessons of bravery and courtesy, honor and devotion. He learns that even a small mouse can be a knight in shining armor. And in the darkness of the castle dungeon, he learns that “stories are light.”

If this is so, reader, then The Tale of Despereaux shines brightly.