By Taylor Blasko
Kate DiCamillo’s young adult novel The Tale of Despereaux is a story told as a modern day fairytale. It draws the reader in like a fairytale would, but rather than saying, “Once upon a time…” the book gets even more explicit, “Come closer, dear reader. You must trust me. I am telling you a story.”
This might seem simplistic and a little too straightforward for an adult reader, but it’s really, in my opinion a fantastic way to break the fourth wall with a younger audience. I think the book also presents older, a bit more sophisticated ideas in a really effective way for a younger crowd.
One of those ways is that the book talks a lot about the light and dark, and uses metaphors for such very explicitly including the dungeon (dark), the upstairs where the princess lives (light), and even going so far as to tell us that the rat’s name, Chiaroscuro, means light and dark. But the book doesn’t present the light and dark as a binary, as it might seem like would be the easy thing for a children’s book to do.
That’s the greatness of this book, it’s enjoyable and playful being about, as the book states on the inside cover itself, “being the story of a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread,” but it’s also simultaneously about having courage and standing up for what you believe for and what you love.
We get Despereaux, the runt sized, big-eared mouse born with his eyes open…what a weirdo. But we get him as the hero of the story. We get a courtly love that Despereaux has for the princess. A love between a mouse and a human girl, but honorable nonetheless. We get a rat that wants revenge. But he just wants the light even though everyone tells him he’s a rat and shouldn’t want that. The book gives us classic fairytale themes by putting a nice twist on them.
Why is this valuable for young readers? Well, maybe the time of telling classic misogynistic, violent fairytales is coming to a close. This book keeps the important lessons of fairytales by telling them in a more progressive and contemporary way. And unlike in a classic fairytale where the hero of the tale will live happily ever after, because that’s what will be granted to him for simply being the hero, this book reminds us that in real life people work for their happiness. Happiness isn’t something that is just bestowed upon the worthy. It’s something that all of us, big or small have to work for if we really want it.
And while the book questions that idea that “(reader, could it be true?) there was no such thing as happily ever after,” The book goes on yet, to continue to surprise us by the end. I would highly recommend reading this book , it leaves nothing to be desired by the end. And maybe happily ever afters exist, and maybe they don’t, but I can tell you that at least the book doesn’t have a completely bleak ending to it.