Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Tale of Despereaux - Kate DiCamillo

The Tale of DespereauxThe Tale of Despereaux was my pick for a category for my 2017 reading challenge for "A book from a non-human perspective."  This was a really hard category to find a book for; the obvious books, like Black Beauty, I had already read or, like The Art of Racing in the Rain, refused to read because I don't like to read books where the dog dies.  A list of books with non-human main characters suggested The Tale of Despereaux.  It's kind of a loose fit for the category, but half of our point-of-view characters are non-human, so I'm going to go with it since I'm having such hard time finding a title for this category.

The tale is a whimsical, middle-grade level story about a very small mouse who falls in love with a princess and is condemned to death for treading into the human world, but escapes his fate and embarks on a quest to save said princess from a rat named Chiaroscuro.  Also involved is a simple serving girl named Mig.  There's an omniscient narrator who tells the story, but each character has a background portion of the book and then they all come together later on.

The writing here is very fairy tale-like, which was probably the point.  There's some very poignant prose as well, which surprised me for a middle-grade book, but then I guess that's why this won a Newbery Medal.  Take this line from near the end of the book, for example: "But, alas, he never really belonged in either place, the sad fate, I am afraid, of those whose hearts break and then mend in crooked ways."  This is such a simple yet powerful statement that I kind of had to take a step back and examine how it fits not just this story, but so many other ones, and so many people in the real world.  Even when it's not explicitly stated about a character, it's easy to see in hindsight how this suits so many people both real and fictional, and it's a very insightful line and good lesson for a book of this level.

The characters here are all sympathetic, even the "bad" ones.  You can see how they came to where they are and how they've grown, and continue to grow as the story progresses.  The simple narrative style actually lends itself to this because the circumstances are laid out in such a matter of fact manner that everything is very clear, without DiCamillo trying to twist things around and add so many layers that you can't really see to the truth of the thing.  It's also a quick read, which makes it even more impressive that it packs so much emotion and dimension into a relatively small page count, and an even smaller one once you factor in the illustrations that take up a significant portion of space.  The illustrations were actually the one thing I didn't really like about the book; I don't feel like they added to the story, and illustrations actually take away some of the ability of the reader to visualize things as they wish, so I'm pretty much always against them for all but the most junior-reading-level books.

Overall, though, a wonderful, simple story with a good heart that I think even older readers such as myself can enjoy.

4 stars out of 5.

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