I got out of the habit of reading children’s books years ago, not because I decided I outgrew them or lost interest, but mostly because they weren’t on my radar. A children’s book would have to become a phenomenon for me to notice it. So even though Kate DiCamillo’s novel The Tale of Despereaux won the Newbery Prize in 2004, I hadn’t heard of it until the movie was released last year. My stepmother and I took my 7-year-old niece to see the movie on a girls’ day out, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Unlike so many children’s films these days, this story was genuinely creepy and wasn’t filled with wise-cracking sidekicks or overly frenetic action. I knew that the source material had to be my kind of children’s book. This line from the book explains why:
The story is not a pretty one. It has 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.
This not so pretty story centers on Despereaux, a tiny little mouse born with open eyes and unusually big ears. His open eyes and big ears lead him to see and hear things that the other mice do not. He hears music and can read books. He doesn’t scurry away from humans, and he doesn’t chew the pages of their books. And he loves the Princess Pea and commits himself to honoring her, even if it leads to banishment, which it does. When banished to the dungeon, Despereaux encounters a colony of rats with an appetite for the flesh of frightened mice, and he uncovers a plot to capture and imprison the Princess Pea.
The story is much more complex than one might expect in a children’s book. It moves backwards and forwards in time, and Despereaux vanishes from the story for long periods. But that’s okay, because the other characters can fully hold their own. In fact, one of my favorite things about the book is how so many characters are allowed to be a mix of good and bad. Some are led into doing bad things for selfish, but understandable reasons; and some, like Chiaroscuro the rat, have simply been bent by life experience:
There are those hearts, reader, that never mend again once they are broken. Or if they do mend, they heal themselves in a crooked and lopsided way, as if sewn together by a careless craftsman. Such was the fate of Chiaroscuro.
DiCamillo’s storytelling is charming and sometimes quite funny, as in this passage about the queen’s reaction when a rat falls into her soup:
The queen was really a simple soul and always, her whole life, had done nothing except state the obvious.
She died as she lived.
“There is a rat in my soup” were the last words she uttered.
The movie does depart from the book quite a bit. Parts of the plot are altogether different, and there’s one character whose existence didn’t make a lick of sense in the movie, and I’m glad to see he wasn’t in the book at all. (It was the movie’s vague sort of attempt at having a wise-cracking sidekick who gets involved in frenetic action sequences.) The movie did, however, capture the tone of the book and pick up on most of its strengths. It ramped up the violence a bit, putting the princess herself in greater peril than she appears to be in the book, but it wasn’t overdone. (My niece wasn’t bothered at all, although she deemed Coraline too scary based on the preview alone.) I do know that some fans of the book were sorely disappointed in the movie because there are major changes to some of the characters. I suppose I had the advantage of not being in love with these characters going in; thus, the changes didn’t bother me, although I understand the reasons for the complaints.
The Tale of Despereaux is definitely worth wandering into the children’s section for. It’s exactly the kind of story I would have wanted to read as a child, and it’s still the kind of story I want to read. I’d like to get back in the habit of reading children’s/YA literature because there are so many treats to be had there. Any suggestions?