Written by Kate DiCamillo
Illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering
Despereaux Tilling was an odd mouse. He was born small and sickly with huge ears and worse—he was born with his eyes open. This is unheard of in the mouse world. He didn’t think constantly of food, he wasn’t afraid of humans, he did not scurry when needed, he read books instead of eating them, and he enjoyed listening to music. Despereaux Tilling was a failure according to the Council of Mice—and was sent to the Dungeon to be eaten by rats.
Chioroscuro (Roscuro) was an odd rat. His name means a combination of lightness and darkness together and his name was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy because Roscuro loved light. Once he caught a glimpse of light, he thought he had found the meaning of life. He wanted nothing more than to see more light. The other rats, especially Botticelli Remorso, felt this was shameful because, “We are rats. Rats. We do not like light. We are about darkness. We are about suffering...Rats do not go upstairs. Upstairs is the domain of mice.”
Miggery Sow was an odd young girl that nobody ever really cared about. Her mother died when she was six years old, and her father sold her for a red tablecloth, cigarettes, and a hen. She became a slave and was given cauliflower ear from all of the times she had been hit in the ear. She wanted nothing more than to be a princess after seeing the princess briefly when she was seven.
Despereaux, Roscuro, and Miggery seem to have little in common aside from the fact that they are all oddballs in their communities and yet, they all end up connected through themes of good and evil, hope, and love in the Tale of Despereaux, an animal fantasy that is written by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering. The princess is ultimately what brings the three characters together. Despereaux wants to save the princess, Roscuro wants to kidnap the princess, and Migg is so desperate to be the princess that she will help Roscuro with his evil plan.
Throughout the story, DiCamillo does something very interesting with the text that invites the reader into the pages of the story. The narration specifically “talks” to the reader by asking questions and including them in the story. For example, “Instead, reader, she laughed at him.” Or, “You must, frightened though you may be, read on and see for yourself. Reader, it is your duty.” And, ““Reader, do you know the definition of the word “chiaroscuro”?” I felt this was unique, but engaging for the reader. I found myself stopping to ponder her questions and I felt like she was in my head asking and answering questions that I was already wondering. This is a great way to be able to slow readers down and have them enjoy the story.
DiCamillo shows versatility as a writer through this fantasy novel. The only other story I have read by DiCamillo is Because of Winn Dixie, a realistic fiction novel about a lonely young girl trying to find her place in the world. The two stories have very different writing styles as well as different themes. As I was reading Despereaux, I kept thinking about Fleischman’s Weslandia. The character of Wesley in Weslandia and the characters of Despereaux and Roscuro were all social outcasts within their communities. They did not let this bother them and they went about their lives as they saw fit. In the end, all of them were happy—proving that it is best to be yourself.
Ering’s framed pencil illustrations on matted paper allow us to feel fully involved with the story. Through the varying usage of light and dark, we are able to focus on certain aspects. For example, on page 206 when Despereaux has come back from the Dungeon, we focus on Despereaux and his father—Despereaux being the lightest character and his father being shaded darker—both standing out from the other mice in the picture. This makes sense, because the moment is between Despereaux and his father as his father feels guilt and begs for forgiveness.
The coda of the story provides a final message to the reader: “I would like it very much if you thought of me as a mouse telling you a story, this story, with the whole of my heart, whispering it in your ear in order to save myself from the darkness and to save you from the darkness too.” This provides a new perspective on the story—it is told from an “insider” perspective in the world of mice—almost as if it reflects the realities of being a mouse. After reading the coda, I finally realized the purpose of the pages—they are nibbled as though mice had gotten to the book before I did.
And so, reader, it is your duty to read this light-hearted and humorous story. But hurry—before the mice get to it first.