The Tale of Despereaux


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.

tale_of_despereauxThe 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?

This entry was posted in Bookish films, Children's / YA Lit, Speculative Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to The Tale of Despereaux

  1. Jenny says:

    I read kids’ and YA fiction pretty regularly, so I have a lot of suggestions, but one that stands out that I read a couple of years back was The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner. Great world-building, great book. I liked Despereaux too, by the way!

  2. Brittney says:

    The Thief is great, as are the two sequels to it (Queen of Attolia and King of Attolia, the middle one being my fav of the trilogy).

    I’ve read two very noteworthy YA books recently – the first earns is one I read a year ago and I’m still thinking about issues from it (the sign of a great book!) called “My Hands Came Away Red” by Lisa McKay. The second is one by Suzanne Collins called “The Hunger Games”. Both deal with deep stuff and are excellent reads.

  3. adevotedreader says:

    I’m another who’s gotten out of the habit of reading much children’s or YA fiction. I loved the trailers for The Tale of Despereaux, but still haven’t seen it so will take care to hunt down the book first.

    I’ve just read and reviewed a wonderful YA novel called Of a boy by Sonya Hartnett which I’d recommend highly.

  4. marineko says:

    I enjoyed the movie, and I loved diCamillo’s “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane”, and have Despereaux on reserve at the bookstore. This review made me wish I didn’t have to wait until next month to buy my copy!

  5. deslily says:

    Kate has more books out, one is The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane which was very enjoyable with great illustrations

  6. Teresa says:

    Jenny: I think most of the children’s/YA books I’ve read in the last 10 years or so were on your recommendation. It just never occurs to me to browse that section of the library. I’ll look for the Thief Lord.

    Brittney: Cool–another recommendation for the Thief. I’ve been hearing a lot about the Hunger Games, and I did put my name in the hat to get it this month through the Library Thing Early Reviewers.

    adevotedreader: If you like fantasy/fairy tale fiction at all, this is a great book. I’ll check out your review of Of a Boy.

    Marineko: I’ll look for Edward Tulane. The only other book by DiCamillo that I’ve heard of it “Because of Winn Dixie,” and I only know it from movie previews. It looked kind of schmaltzy, so I haven’t been interested.

    Deslily: Cool–another vote for Edward Tulane! The title does sound promising. I’ll take a look.

  7. claire says:

    I’ve read Despereaux 3 years ago, and then right now I’m rereading it with my kids this time. We are moooving very slowly, they get tired after a chapter or two. It’s the first chapter book we’ve read together, though, and we still do picture books a lot. But I’ll be interested to see if the next chapter I pick will move faster. :D

  8. Shannon C. says:

    I’ve not read this one, but I *did* enjoy Because of Winn Dixie, which I read last summer. It is a bit schmaltzy, but it’s realistic in its way. I really like what it had to say about what it means to be compassionate, and it’s the only animal story I’ve read that wasn’t so terribly tragic at the end. (I hope that’s vague enough not to be an annoying spoiler.)

  9. Jodie says:

    Loved the movie (and the line about hearts mending was one of my favourite bits) but the book sounds more intriguing. Your description reminds me a little bit of The Deptford Mice trilogy now I think about it (all those evil rats).

  10. Sarah says:

    The Tale of Despereaux is one of my most treasured books and your book review really stimulated and rejuvinated my love for it!

  11. I know I’m a bit late to the party here, but just came across your review – the book sounds really interesting! While I do read a bit of YA, I don’t read much children’s literature (apart from a brief delve into Madeleine L’Engle a few weeks ago), so it’s interesting to hear about such a well-written children’s book.

    …I realise the post was written over a year ago, but I hope you got a chance to check out The Hunger Games! (I also read The Thief on the recommendation of several book bloggers and was very disappointed – it just seemed pretty blah to me, although it did improve as the book went on.) (The Hunger Games, on the other hand, were AWESOME, and I have already pre-ordered the last book in the trilogy. Can not wait.)

    Thanks for the review on the book – have added it to my TBR pile! :-)

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