In my continuing coverage of spirited rodents who capture the hearts of humans, today we have Newberry Medal Award winner, The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo. Set primarily in a medieval castle, the royal family includes the king, the queen and their young daughter, the Princess Pea. Also living in the castle are servants and rodents; mice within the walls of the castle and rats down below in the much-used dungeon. Though named for Despereaux, the book is really three stories weaved together, that of three very different characters all looking for their place in the world.
*** Before I go any further, I feel like a disclaimer is needed for this book. There are story lines that may be too intense for some readers, including murder (mouse death), parental death and physical abuse of a child by a caregiver. My son wasn’t bothered much by the scenes of peril that Despereaux frequently encountered but we did spend some time talking about the abuse endured by the servant girl, Miggery. Just something to consider before you delve in; you know your audience best. ***
With that said, let’s begin… Despereaux Tilling is a tiny mouse with giant ears. He’s the smallest mouse that anyone can remember and that’s not the only thing that sets him apart from the rest of his rodent brethren. Despereaux is also incredibly brave, not afraid of humans but instead, absolutely enamored of them.
He longs to be part of the human world and spends as much time as possible in the spaces that they inhabit. He especially loves sneaking into the library to read a fairy tale about a knight who loves and honors fair princess. It’s not just the human way of life that interests Despereaux… he is also deeply in love with Princess Pea!
He unusual interests regularly attract the disdain of his family. His parents are openly disappointed in him. His own father rats him out (pun intended) to the Mouse Council, telling them of his interactions with humans. It’s this revelation that ultimately leads to Despereaux being condemned to certain death in the castle’s dungeon. When he’s led to the dungeon, he discovers that his own brother is holding the rope.
Roscuro is a rat who, like Despereaux, doesn’t fit in with his kind, either. He lives in the castle’s dungeon with thousands of other rats. His only He’s been told his entire life that rats are nocturnal, they are meant to flourish in the darkness. But Roscuro is attracted to the light; in fact, he craves it! One day, however, he becomes a little too comfortable scurrying around the castle among the humans. As the royal family is dining on a meal of delicious soup, Roscuro loses his grip on the chandelier he’s perched on. He falls directly into the Queen’s bowl of soup!
The shock of seeing a rodent in her food so troubles the Queen that she immediately has a heart attack, dying at the table in front of her family. In response to her sudden death, the heartbroken King bans not only rats from the kingdom, but also soup and any implement necessary to the creation of soup, such as pots, ladles, bowls and even spoons!
Miggery Sow is a servant girl who lives with a violent farmer, after being sold to him by her father in exchange for a handful of cigarettes, a red tablecloth and a hen. We’re told that her mother died when Miggery was only 6 and her father no longer wants to care for her. She isn’t a very bright girl, however her situation is made all the more difficult by the frequent head punches she receives from the horrid farmer.
The poor child can barely hear as a result of her treatment and no one has ever done a single thing in her life to bring her an ounce of joy. It truly is a miserable existence. But on her seventh birthday, Miggery is jolted from her tedious, joyless life when she sees the royal family pass by her home on horseback. She is mesmerized by the sight of the horses, the King, the Queen but mostly by the dazzling Princess Pea. She vows in that moment to one day live in the castle and to become a princess, too.
Years later, part of her wish is granted when the farmer’s abuse is witnessed by a soldier of the King. She is brought to the castle to work as a servant girl. Once within the castle’s walls, her desire to become a princess is only amplified. Her vulnerability is sensed by the rat Roscuro, and acting on his well-honed skills of manipulation, he takes advantage of the dim-witted girl, drawing her into a dangerous situation that risks the life of Princess Pea! After learning of the plot against the Princess, Despereaux has no choice but to summon all of his courage to save her life.
Will Despereaux succeed in his mission? Will his family finally accept him for his differences? Will Roscuro see the error of his ways and rehabilitate his heart? Will Miggery finally enjoy a happy moment in her life? Will the King allow soup to be served in the kingdom again? All of these questions, and more, will be answered by the end of the book’s 269 pages.
The Tale of Despereaux is perfect for children who enjoy stories of bravery, intrigue, danger and adventure. It’s relatively lengthy for a children’s book so I would recommend it for a fully independent reader or as a bedtime story read by an adult.