DiCamillo, Kate. The Tale of Despereaux. Candlewick, 2003. 272 pages. Paperback $17.99 ISBN 9780763617226
I am SO LATE TO THIS PARTY.
Despereaux is named for the despair he causes his mother at his birth — the only of the mouse litter to survive, he is also born with his eyes open, marking him from the very beginning as “different.” While the mouse community sees his differences as negative ones — ultimately banishing him from their society — the narrator helps readers to see that Despereaux’s “lack of conformity” is the very thing that makes him our little mousie hero. Despereaux braves certain death, rats, darkness, and a cook’s knife on his quest for the one he loves … will he be successful?
DiCamillo’s narration is gorgeous; it feels as though someone is sitting beside you, telling you the whole tale. The “Coda” at the end of the book reinforces this feeling, as the narrator asks that we imagine that we are like Gregory the jailer listening to Despereaux’s story in the dark. Truly, this book fills up a reader like light can brighten a bad day and soup can warm a person. This would be a fantastic book for book clubs or reader’s theatre — encouraging students to swap turns as narrator and perhaps having students “act out” the characters could be a lot of fun. There is also a great deal of space to discuss universal truths — fear, goodness, kindness, bravery — when reading through this book in a group. Despereaux is often fearful, but he works through his fear for the good of others. Roscuro is no doubt a bad guy … but we can see what made him that way. DiCamillo’s small lesson on “empathy” is perfectly packaged and will make for some great class or club discussions.