This is a wonderful, moving, perfectly enchanting novel for children of all ages, and it more than lives up to the spirit of the John Newberry Medal it received as the year's "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." I had read a number of good things about The Tale of Despereaux, and the book actually exceeded my high expectations. Not only does Kate DiCamillo give us a moving, gripping story with wonderful characters; she teaches us a number of important lessons about life in the process. A similar set of circumstances leads several individuals down completely different yet converging roads in life, and this serves to illustrate the important fact that all of our actions and decisions have consequences for ourselves as well those around us. At the same time, DiCamillo reinforces the importance of love, forgiveness, imagination, determination, etc., in each of our lives.
Despereaux could be called the mouse that lived; the only survivor of his mother's last litter, he was born (in a castle) with large ears and with his eyes open; thus, from the very start, he was made fun of and constantly told there was something wrong with him. Truly, he was no ordinary mouse; light fascinated him, music stirred his soul, and a fairy tale he read (rather than gnaw on the pages) inspired his dreams. Drawn by the sound of music one day, he disregards the established rules of mice by not only approaching the king and his little girl but actually speaking to them. Despereaux falls madly in love with the princess, but his actions lead the mice council to send him to the dungeon - to the rats. These dungeon rats are mean and nasty, and they eat any mouse that is sent down to their domain. One, however, is not content to be a rat; Roscuro yearns to escape the darkness and dwell in the light - ridiculed by his rat buddies for such silly dreams, he nevertheless makes his way up and into the castle. Unfortunately, his appearance sets in motion a tragedy that hangs heavily over the rest of the story - embittered by the experience, Roscuro returns to the dungeon and begins making plans for revenge. Then you have Miggery Sow, the most tragic character of all. At six years old, her mother died, and her father soon sold her for a hen, a red tablecloth, and some cigarettes. Her "uncle" clouts her ears constantly for her mistakes, leaving her with cauliflower ears that she can barely hear out of. No one has ever cared about her or her desires. All three of these fascinating characters are destined to come together in the final section of this remarkable little novel.
It's an inspiring story indeed, and Despereaux is a hero in every sense of the word. Not only must he survive his banishment to the rat-infested dungeon, he must -under almost impossible circumstances - try to rescue the princess he loves so dearly. Love, honor, determination, and heroism (and soup) give him strength, but even still he is only a little two-ounce mouse. There are a number of lessons in Despereaux's tale, not the least of which is the idea that even the smallest of individuals can be heroic and change people's lives. Roscuro represents the pain and misery that inevitably comes from reacting to disappointment in a negative fashion, while poor Miggery Sow is a most telling victim of physical and emotional abuse. Yet forgiveness is always possible, and that is a striking element of this plot. The whole book is simply enchanting and inspirational. DiCamillo often steps outside of the narrative to address the reader directly, offering words of encouragement or warning of unpleasant things ahead, and I thought this added a great deal of charm to an already charming book. This is a story you will delight in reading again and again.