Books Are Pretty

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Tale of Despereaux.

The last time the boys and I went to Women & Children First to stock up on books, I picked Despereaux out for Alex, hoping that if he wasn't ready for chapter books yet, he would be soon.

"Look, Alex," I said, pulling out the hard sell, "it has a gold medal on it. It won a prize."

"Okay, okay," he said, but I gushed on.

"It won a prize for best book of the year!"

And so it had. I'd been wanting to read Despereaux ever since 2004, when the Newbery award was slapped on it. I didn't even know anything about it, but it was one of those books that just emit the feeling that there's a great story inside.

And Reader, there is.

Kate DiCamillo has written a classic children's book; one that I am sorry was not published when I was Alex's age, because it would have blown my kid self away. So every night the 37-year-old child would ask the seven-year-old child, begging hopefully, "Despereaux? Tonight?"

And every night the little sadist would say, "No, not tonight." And he'd hand me some crappy Junie B. Jones book that we'd already read a thousand times. He knew, Reader. He knew how badly I wanted to read it, and he reveled in his cruelty.

Finally, though, after literally months of abusing me, he relented, and permitted me to read him Despereaux as a bedtime tale.

The chapters are short, and we read four a night. Each night, he begged me for five. I'd like to say I wreaked my revenge on him and refused, but sometimes I did read five, because I also wanted to know What Happened Next.

Born to a French mother in a castle in an unnamed land, Despereaux grows up to be an undersized mouse with oversized dreams. While his brothers and sisters are scrambling for crumbs dropped on the castle floor, Despereaux is in the library, staring at the four words in an opened book that ignite his passions and drive his life forward - "Once upon a time."

Like the title character in Beverly Cleary's Runaway Ralph, Despereaux is a mouse who strives to take more from life than what is expected of him.

One day, Despereaux hears the king play a bedtime song for his daughter, the Princess Pea. Despereaux is so engrossed in the melody that he is lured out of his hiding place, and sees the princess for the first time. He falls into an instant, courtly love.

This rush of emotion sets into play a series of events that entwine Despereaux's life with the lives of two other creatures with similarly oversized dreams: Chiaroscuro, the vicious dungeon rat with a passion to live in light, and Miggery Sow, a tragically abused servant girl whose strongest desire is to be a princess.

DiCamillo slowly braids the three stories together - the tales of Despereaux, Chiaroscuro, and Miggery Sow - tightly and artfully, drawing the suspense out almost painfully as all three creatures reach toward their respective dreams, fall into deep disgrace, and develop methods of pulling themselves out that puts them at odds with each other. Toward the climax, Alex began bouncing up and down in bed, saying, "This is really freaking me out! This is freaking me out now!"

And to tell the truth, it was freaking me out a little, too, because we had reached the fifth and last chapter of the night, and, like Alex, I was dying to know What Happened Next.

The Tale of Despereaux
by Kate DiCamillo
2004 by Candlewick Press
Paperback, 269 pp
ISBN: 0-76-36252-9

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