Book Review: The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo

I am such a sucker for book design.  I’ve always wanted to read Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux, simply because of how it’s packaged – the title font, the cover illustration, the French-inspired title, and the choppy, uneven cut of the paper edges.  The little Newberry Medal seal doesn’t hurt it’s curb appeal, either.  Am I the only one who sometimes includes the physical qualities of a book with the experience of reading the story?

A few weeks ago I saw a preview for the movie version of  The Tale of Despereaux, and not knowing a bit about the storyline, thought the movie looked kinda cute.  Beautiful colors and wonderful lines in the animation, a cute little mouse of a hero, and I do love Matthew Broderick.  Even if it did look faintly like “Ratatouille,” I felt excited about the movie and thought I’d finally read the book.

The immediate problem:  I am not sure a filmmaker on earth could have captured the magic of this book.  It is almost indescribable to me, the way this book made me feel.  Then again, I felt the same way about reading Charlotte’s Web, and I do think the 2006 film version did it a lovely bit of justice.  So maybe there’s no excuse for why filmmakers for Despereaux felt they needed to throw in a big mean cat (not in the book), mouse school (not there either), and a field of vicious mousetraps (nope, nope, nope).  The book is about being brave, yes, but not being brave because of danger.  It’s about being brave enough to be who you were born to be.

Despereaux is born different from all the other mice – bigger ears, smaller body.  And born with his EYES OPEN (which no mouse, apparently, ever is).  He is drawn to light, he feels music in his body like the sound of honey (“sound,” he says, not “smell”).  He loves books not for the glue or paper to chew on, but for the tales they weave and truths they create.  And he doesn’t fear humans, but falls in love with them, well – with one in particular.  He is brave not because he is being pursued by the castle cat, but because he himself pursues something transcendent in his life – light and love.  Not what anyone expects of a mouse!

This is such a gorgeous, lush, lovely book.  It made me chuckle, frown, and cry just a little.  DiCamillo’s storytelling is like silk – luxurious and soft, and sturdy and sure.  I love the narrator, how he/she directly addresses the “reader.”  I love how in such a short span of time and space, these characters are made complicated and complex.  Everything is not perfect, noone is without their faults.  How did DiCamillo create a world so divine and still so infinitely human?  She’s amazing.

My throat tightened (as it does now) upon reading the “Coda” to Despereaux’s tale:

Do you remember when Despereaux was in the dungeon, cupped in Gregory the jailer’s hand, whispering a story in the old man’s ear?

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.

“Stories are light,” Gregory the jailer told Despereaux.

Reader, I hope you have found some light here.

Oh, yes, I found light.  For me, it was as bright as the sun.

Related Link:  DiCamillo’s narrator asks the dear reader at one point to look up the word “perfidy.”  Unfortunately, the word is very relevant to Despereaux’s experiences with his family.  To give you a head start on the book, you can find the definition HERE.

*Disclosure: Amazon affiliate link included.