Laurinda’s Rating: 4.5/5
The Tale of Despereaux, the 2004 Newbery Medal Winner authored by Kate diCamillo, is a whimsical variation on a classic story. Although everything comes right in the end, diCamillo taps into some of the darkness which originally pervaded fairy tales, playing with light and darkness both literally and figuratively. She weaves together the stories of four main characters, gradually pulling them closer together until they are interacting.
The title character, Despereaux, is a tiny mouse who cares about distinctly non mouselike pursuits – he loves to read and enjoys music so much that he accidentally meets the king and princess, with whom he falls in love. For betraying mouse-kind, Despereaux is sentenced to death, tied with a red string and thrown to the rats in the dungeon. His ability to tell a story saves him, as the jailer is starved for the light which storytelling brings.
Chiaroscuro, Roscuro for short, is a rat obsessed with light, brought on by a close encounter with the jailer’s candle. One night, he sneaks upstairs to watch a banquet from the chandelier. Roscuro is startled and plummets from the chandelier into the queen’s soup bowl, whereupon she dies. He slinks back to the dungeon, turning his fear into a perverted hatred-longing for the light.
Mig was sold by her father for the price of a hen, a lovely red tablecloth, and a few other bits and bobs. She’s nearly deaf from all the clouts on the ear she received from the man who bought her. In an odd twist of fate, soldiers coming to seize all pots and spoons (soup was outlawed after the Queen’s death), free Mig and take her to the castle.
Roscuro persuades Mig to kidnap the princess and take her to the dungeon. In a maneuver involved a few tail amputations, illegal soup, and a spool of red thread, Despereaux defuses the situation and rescues the princess. Life continues on, with the characters happier than before.
I greatly enjoyed this book. The author adds clever asides to the reader and does an impeccable job tying together the main narratives. The story is in turns amusing and touching. DiCamillo plays with the traditional fairy tale or heroic narrative, subverting it enough to make it fresh again. The illustrations are the perfect complement to the text. I would recommend this to almost anyone.