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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Tale of Despereaux

The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread won the Newberry medal in 2004. I read it a year later and was totally charmed by Despereaux, a tiny mouse who doesn't quite fit in with the other mice. He was the last child of his mother, born with enormous ears and open eyes. He often stops to look at the light that comes through the castles grand windows or to listen to sounds others don't hear and quite forgets to scurry or hug the walls. Despite the efforts of his older brothers and sisters to tutor him the ways of mice, he seems ill-prepared to survive in the dangerous world of a castle where war has been declared by the humans on all rodents.

When his sister tries to convince him to nibble on the books in the castle library, especially the tasty dark spots, he is instead entranced by the words on the page, Once upon a time. He returns to the library time and again, to the despair of his family, to read the book all the way through. In it he learns about knights, and love, and honor, and when he meets Princess Pea, he cannot resist speaking to her and telling her, "I honor you." And as silly as it may seem for a mouse to love a princess, love is the most powerful force in the universe, and his love for the princess will save them all.

Another character important to this tale is Chiaroscuro, familiarly known as Roscuro, a rat who lives in the dark dungeon, but like Despereaux, is fascinated with the light. He resents those who live above, because they have banished all rats to the darkness, and this makes him dangerous.

Miggery, a not-very-bright, sadly disfigured servant girl who has been badly mistreated by life, sees Princess Pea and covets her beauty and her easy life. She shares her longing with Roscuro, who exploits her desire and conspires with her to kidnap Princess Pea and hold her prisoner in the vast dungeon. It is our miniscule hero, Despereaux, who sets himself the task of finding and rescuing her, and due to his courage and resourcefulness, he does, of course, succeed.

I loved this book. I read whole chapters aloud to my reading classes, showing them the beautiful illustrations by Timothy Basil Ering. The one of the princess leaning down with her hair falling down toward the floor and our hero is my favorite.

This is a perfect book. If you have a young reader in elementary school who does not own this book, it would make a perfect gift that will be treasured. Buy it in hardback. It will be passed on to the reader's children years from now as a cherished family heirloom. And don't forget to read it yourself. They say that we are every age we have ever been, so even if you are no longer a child, the child in you will love this book.

This charming book has been made into a movie, which I have not seen. I watched the trailer today, and while I enjoyed the look of Despereaux, the scenes depicted were quite different from any in the book, so it is clear that some liberties have been taken with the story line (sigh). I hope that the movie will encourage many young readers to discover this special book.  You can visit the movie website: HERE 

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