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the tale of despereaux

14 January 2004

Kate DiCamillo's Tale of Despereaux is the 2004 Newbery Medal book. It's probably the best Newbery Medal book in four years (since Christopher Paul Curtis's Bud, Not Buddy in 2000), and though it's a flawed book in some ways, it has a dark vitality that compensates for those flaws.

The Tale of Despereaux concerns a mouse living in a fairy-tale palace stocked with a despondent King, a beautiful Princess, and a serving-girl named Miggery Sow. And rats, lots of them, deep in the dungeon. Despereaux is a tiny mouse with big ears, an over-achieving fairy-tale hero. Like most Newbery-Medal-book protagonists, he discovers early on the enduring value of reading (can you guess that this is an award given by librarians?). He's presented to us by a precious narrator who keeps telling us, Reader, to look the hard words up in our dictionary.

Once you get past these surface irritations, there's a lot to admire in DiCamillo's dark castle. Timothy Basil Ering's awkward pencil drawings, in their very unsettledness, give the atmosphere of twisted and struggling beings. There's Roscuro the rat, whose heart has been broken and put back together wrong. There's the ugly-natured Miggery, who like Roscuro has been abused but at the same time is also in some ways basically no good. And there are characters far worse: the dungeon rats who torment prisoners, Mig's prisoner father who's sold her away, and the Philistine council of mice who doom Despereaux to the dungeon.

The adults, as in many fairy tales, are feckless and negligent. They're volatile, like the Cook who first wants to kill Despereaux even if he's already dead, and later befriends him when he revives. They're off in their own worlds, like the King too grief-stricken over the Queen's death to do anything except make soup illegal. And they're just plain bad, like Despereaux's French mother who has little to say to him except "Adieu."

In such a world, the values that keep the younger characters going are largely the ones they learn out of story-books; the adults are shockingly out of touch, but the kids rebuild themselves as moral agents by reading fairy tales. It's a reflexive idea that DiCamillo herself stresses now and again: The Tale of Despereaux itself tells how to stay true to codes of honor even when some of the people you should be honoring don't seem particularly honorable.

Kate DiCamillo is a relative newcomer in children's literature. Her first novel Because of Winn-Dixie was a Newbery Honor book in 2001, and was followed by The Tiger Rising later that year. The Tale of Despereaux is an intriguing book, hinting at sequels – and also, it would seem, written with an eye toward Hollywood. It's an animator's dream, and shows the influence (among other things) of the 1950 Disney Cinderella. Let's hope that any eventual movie can convey the disquieting energy of DiCamillo's novel.

DiCamillo, Kate. The Tale of Despereaux, being the story of a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread. Illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2003.