I’ve been thinking about literature quite a bit recently, and so I’ve decided that it’s time to explore another book from my well-loved bookshelf. So far, I’ve talked about The NIght Circus, Mere Christianity, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and Ender’s Game… today, I want to delve into a new genre: children’s literature.
The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo
“Welcome to the story of Despereaux Tilling, a mouse who is in love with music, stories, and a princess named Pea. It is also the story of a rat called Roscuro, who lives in the darkness and covets a world filled with light. And it is the story of Miggery Sow, a slow-witted serving girl who harbors a simple, impossible wish. These three characters are about to embark on a journey that will lead them down into a horrible dungeon, up into a glittering castle, and, ultimately, into each other’s lives. What happens then? As Kate DiCamillo would say: Reader, it is your destiny to find out.”
The thing that I love most about children’s books is their simplicity. So many novels are sweeping, covering huge distances and tackling one social-political-emotional issue after another, jumping from culture to culture and burrowing into everything from racism to sexuality to politics. Epics like The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao or Middlesex come to mind. These books are incredible in their way, but sometimes, I find the greatest joy in a story that is stripped down to its core. Truly great children’s literature, in my opinion, is just that: it takes away all of the cultural references, and instead presents the reader with a story that is not rooted in some societal context, but borne along simply by its characters. The Tale of Despereaux captured my heart for just that reason: in it, a story about a mouse and a princess, a rat and a serving girl, becomes more profound than any tale that spans centuries or continents.
The book is divided into four parts, with the first three telling parallel stories focusing on main characters: Despereaux (a tiny mouse, different from other mice in almost every way, who falls in love with a human), Roscuro (a rat who envies a world of light and so determines to pull it into darkness), and Miggory Sow (a slave-turned-servant who only wishes, impossibly, to be a princess). The fourth and final portion of the book narrates how the three stories intersect, focusing on the consequences of each’s actions and hopes and dreams. The pages of the book have jagged edges that I find particularly romantic, there are beguiling pencil illustrations throughout the chapters, and it is finished with a lovely coda from the author. I cannot say enough good things about it.
One of my favorite things about The Tale of Despereaux was DiCamillo’s choice to address the reader directly, with narrative asides and all. She elegantly gives the impression that you are sitting in some hidden room in a library, listening to a wise librarian as she reads the story aloud for a group of children (“Reader, do you know what the word ‘perfidy’ means? I have a feeling you do, based on the little scene that just unfolded here. But you should look up the word in your dictionary, just to be sure.”). Similarly, DiCamillo treats the reader with respect and honesty, refusing to dilute her story and instead stating the facts: that sometimes, people (and mice) are cruel, or they are a mixture of good and bad, or that our actions have consequences, or whatever other profound truth through which the story leads her. She doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, taking a hard look at what sadnesses and injustices befall her characters, while still balancing the darkness with a celebration of love and light and forgiveness.
Ultimately, DiCamillo gently guides the reader through a story of prejudice, betrayal, child abuse, and parental abandonment, going slowly enough that the full weight of the topics can fall on the readers’ shoulders. She walks through the consequences of selfishness, or revengeful actions, or greed. She expores in detail the power of forgiveness, the fear present in courage, the wonder of being accepted. She tells the truth, both good and bad, about the world as it is today. And yet, somehow, in the midst of all the heavy topics, the book remains whimsical and playful, thanks to her narration style and her choice of words. DiCamillo has said that she sees darkness in writing as a place where readers can enter in, exploring it as a means to come to terms with their own personal darkness as well as a foil to the light in their lives. I, for one, must agree. This book has convinced me.
“And while the mouse slept, Roscuro put his terrible plan into effect. Would you like to hear, reader, how it all unfolded? The story is not a pretty one. There is violence in it. And cruelty. But stories that are not pretty have a certain value, too, I suppose. Everything, as you well know (having lived in this world long enough to have figured out a thing or two for yourself), cannot always be sweetness and light.”