The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of ThreadTakeaway: A dark fairytale where a mouse can be as important as a knight.

As I get older and start reading children’s books, not just for my own pleasure, but also I am thinking about what I will be able to recommend and when to my nieces, I am increasingly wondering what is really appropriate for children.  The answer has to be at least in part, it depends on the child.  Different children are affected by different things, different children have different personal experiences, and different children emotionally process books differently.

So I read and basically enjoyed the Leminy Snickett books, they were very dark but they were funny and I can understand why they were popular.  I have read Harry Potter and understand why parents let children read the first three but make them wait until they are older to read the next four.

I have not previously read anything by Kate DiCammillo (or seen the movies). She has won two Newbery Awards and a host of other awards. But the complaint I have heard is that she writes about dark things without really acknowledging their darkness. I understand that there can be value in that. Children are present for dark things. They may not be adults or able to process their own experiences like adults, but that does not mean that children do not experience adult horrors.

I have read some of the original versions of fairy tales and they are closer to horror/thrillers than modern children’s books. So I am a bit mixed in what I think about this book. It is very well written. DiCamillo deserves Newbery medals if all of her books are this well written. But this is dark. It involves a not incredibly bright girl that is sold into slavery and beaten enough that she loses much of her hearing and sense of smell. It involves rats that live in dungeons and children that are turned into court systems (even if they are animal ones) and sentenced to death. It involves not one but two girls who’s mothers have died and want nothing more than to just have their mothers back again.

But it does not dwell on the horrors of any of them. They are just simple facts and the story moves on.  I am now interested in what the movie is like. I am also further convinced that parents as much as possible should be reading books along with their children and engaging their kids in discussion around the books. I know how hard that is. Children, if they want, can spend several hours a day reading and few adults can devote that much time, especially when children get a bit older and the reading rates between adult and children shrink.

But I also know that I probably read things that I should not have read and I turned out OK. And most other kids will as well.

By the way, I listened to the audiobook of this from my library. Local libraries really are important places to support and a resource that you should be using. Even though I am a regular library patron, I have not been inside a local library since I last renewed my library card. I can now get well over 2000 books electronically either in kindle or audiobook format.

Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook


My 9 year old loves DiCamillo. Because of Winn-Dixie is among her favorites.

I enjoyed reading this to my 6 year old, and she enjoyed it as well. Reading it together allows me to pause and either ask questions to gauge how she is digesting the material, or model for her what I think about the material by reacting out loud to what I just read. Such as…

… How does that make you feel?
… Would you choose to do that? Why or why not?
… Oh my goodness, that hurts my heart! A Daddy should not treat his little girl like that!
… I’m glad he made the right choice, even though it was hard.

My favorite quote from the book:

“Why would you save me, then?”
“Because you, mouse, can tell Gregory a story. Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark. Begin at the beginning. Tell Gregory a story. Make some light.”
And because Despereaux wanted very much to live, he said, “Once upon a time . . .”
“Yes,” said Gregory happily. He raised his hand higher and then higher still until Despereaux’s whiskers brushed against his leathery, timeworn ear. “Go on, mouse,” said Gregory. “Tell Gregory a story.”
And it was in this way that Despereaux became the only mouse sent to the dungeon whom the rats did not reduce to a pile of bones and a piece of red thread.
It was in this way that Despereaux was saved.

DiCamillo, Kate; Basil Ering,Timothy (2009-08-30). The Tale of Despereaux: being the story of a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread (pp. 31-32). Candlewick Press. Kindle Edition.

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