When you hear the name Kate DiCamillo attached to a book, you know you are in the hands of a masterful storyteller. And so it is with The Tale of Despereaux, the 2004 Newbery Medal winner, a story steeped in darkness but simultaneously bursting with light. It reads like a fairy tale, and it is no wonder it won children’s literature’s highest honor. It’s a masterpiece.
The Tale of Despereaux is the story of a young mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread. It is also the story of a vengeful rat, a servant girl with dreams of becoming a princess, and a jailer who lives in the dungeon, tied to a rope so he doesn’t lose his way in the darkness. How these stories weave together is a feat in and of itself, but they do– and it’s gorgeous — and they culminate in a hero’s quest that ends with one very small, but extraordinarily large champion who may just win the heart of the most beautiful girl in the castle.
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I hadn’t read The Tale of Despereaux in years, and while I remembered loving it, I didn’t remember much about it and was nervous it wouldn’t meet my high expectations. But it did, in every way possible. I forgot how much I loved the omniscient narrator whose all knowing presence and irreverent comments to the reader make you feel as if the narrator himself is sitting next to you on the couch as you read. I was intrigued by the themes of light and darkness, by these opposing traits that show up in virtually all of the characters, with each having the potential to become heroic or villainous. I love how the theme of betrayal (or “perfidy” as used throughout the story) is one that haunts all of the characters. And I love how DiCamillo’s language sweeps you into another world and leaves you totally and completely captivated. Perfect for third and fourth graders- and even for the advanced second grader- The Tale of Despereaux is a modern day fairy tale- a classic that will have a place in every elementary library for generations to come.
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