Sunday, July 6, 2014

Reading With My Kids: The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

Source of book: We own this, but we listened to it as an audiobook on our vacation.

My second daughter loves all things rodent. Her first favorite stuffed animal was a mouse, and she now has an extensive collection of mice and rats, all individually named. Many are, naturally, named after varieties of cheese. (She is extraordinarily fond of cheese - just like her father.) When the kids were picking out audiobooks to take with us on our vacation, she picked The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo, as it was one of her favorites - but one I had never read, so she was eager to introduce me to it.

(As another example of her rodent love, she - and my elder daughter - chose to bring the stuffed kangaroo rats they got during our trip to Death Valley National Park back in January on this trip…)

Despereaux was published in 2003, which would explain why I never read it as a child.

Like most good children’s books, this one is filled with ideas and themes that are universal to all ages. I probably should give my older daughters (ages 11 and 9) credit for understanding most of them, but I found that they were equally interesting to an adult. As in many great stories, there is the triumph of the misunderstood underdog, a chance at redemption for several villains, a quest inspired by high ideals and love, and much wit in between. Also, a bit of commentary on the politics of despotism and the glories of soup. In the right hands, this is a recipe for a charming tale.

I won’t spoil the plot, because that is part of the fun. Rather, I will note that Despereaux, a young mouse with a shocking love for reading, rather than scurrying, falls in love with the princess. He is sent to the dungeon for sure death after he breaks the mouse code by talking with humans, but manages to survive by wit and the friendship of the jailor. In the meantime, we hear the stories of Miggery Sow, a peasant girl sold into slavery by her father, and Chiaroscuro (aka, Roscuro), a rat with a love for light and beauty who has sworn revenge on the Princess.

These three (with Despereaux himself) form the three main characters of the book. All three desire to transcend their station in life. Despereaux wishes to find himself in a fairy tale, with high ideals of love and honor and courage. Mig wishes to be a princess, rather than an abused scullery maid. Roscuro wishes to live in the light and beauty, not the darkness sought by both rats.

None of the three ultimately achieve their goals in the way they anticipated, but all are able to find transcendence in a different, partial form, and can be said to live “happily ever after,” as the author interprets the fairy tale ending.

There are a few great lines that I want to mention. After disaster befalls the kingdom as a result of Roscuro’s attempt to join a grand banquet (rats and banquets do not go together well), the king outlaws soup and all of its implements: spoons, bowls, and kettles. He also attempts to outlaw rats, which is silly because nobody likes rats anyway - they are already outlaws. As the author puts it, though, “When you are king, you may make as many ridiculous laws as you like. That is what being a king is all about.” I might add that this also applies to legislators and bureaucrats too…

The whole naming of Chiaroscuro was fun too. For those not familiar with the art term, it is the treatment of light and shade, specifically, an effect of contrasted light and shadow created by light falling unevenly or from a particular direction on something. Roscuro is fascinated by light, even though, as a rat, he is part of the realm of the shadow. He can never live comfortably in either realm, but he aspires to light and beauty.

Chiaroscuro was particularly popular during the Renaissance. Rembrandt used it in many of his paintings, but probably Caravaggio was the most notable for his use and perfection of the technique. 

 There are so many outstanding Rembrandts to choose from.
I’ll go with An Old Man In Red just because I love the characterization - Rembrandt’s outstanding ability.

Likewise, Caravaggio painted so many masterpieces of chiaroscuro, but I will go with The Supper at Emmaus.

Another fun thing about the way that this book uses outside references is the fact that the mice - particularly Despereaux’s family - tend to have French or English names, (Despereaux’s mother is French) while the rats are all Italian. Not just Italian, but Renaissance art related Italian. The other notable rat is Botticelli, named after the Renaissance painter most famous for The Birth of Venus.

The Birth of Venus by Botticelli.

Botticelli the rat is notable for his philosophical views on the meaning of life.

“The meaning of life,” said Botticelli, “is suffering. Specifically, the suffering of others.” Botticelli believes that his life becomes meaningful through his ability to make the prisoners suffer. It is the purpose of a rat, after all. “Evil. Prisoners. Rats. Suffering. It all fits together so neatly, so sweetly. Oh it is a lovely world, a lovely dark world.”

It is a deliciously awful idea, of course, and deliciously awful stuff is the bread and butter of a good story. Too much light by itself is no fun at all, as there is no conflict, and thus no growth. It is that very chiaroscuro, that contrast of light and darkness, which makes for a great tale of a certain type. (Other stories gain their interest from the subtleties of human nature, the inseparable mixture of light and dark within the human soul.) In this case, both occur. There is the pure dark of Botticelli and the pure light, if you will, of the princess or Despereaux; but there is also the mixed light and dark of Roscuro and Mig, who eventually must choose which side of their nature to follow.

Overall, I must say that my daughter has good taste in books, because we all enjoyed this one very much.

I also need to mention that, while not present in the audiobook for obvious reasons, the illustrations by Timothy Basil Ering are greatly beloved by my daughter. She mentioned at the key points in the story how hilarious and delightful a particular illustration was in the physical book.

To that end, I will include here one of her favorites: Roscuro, with his stolen soup spoon. 

Really a delightful children’s book, and one I can recommend as fun for adults as well.


  1. This sounds lovely; I have never read the book.

    Perhaps you are familiar with the Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis. You and your daughters might like the delightful and inspiring Reepicheep, the mouse warrior. He appears in more than one book, but his best role is in Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

  2. I grew up immersed in the Narnia books. My wife has read the kids at least the first few of them, and we listened to some on audio a few years back. Reepicheep is definitely a favorite character.

  3. I am not surprised.

  4. If you haven't read Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo, I highly recommend it!