Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux (Candlewick Press, 2003)

"Once upon a time…." How many books use those same four words as a starting point for the adventures contained within their pages? How many stories have you read or listened to that began with those five sacred syllables? More importantly, how many of those stories have ended with "and they lived happily ever after?" The majority of plots that begin that way are classified under the category of "fairy tales." Most of the people who have read the Brothers Grimm are well aware of the magical properties of those four words.

The Tale of Despereaux does not begin with "Once upon a time...." nor does it finish with "and they lived happily ever after." But without those two phrases, so crucial to the structure of every fairy tale, The Tale of Despereaux would forever go untold. The introduction of "Once upon a time...." is what induces a young, undersized mouse named Despereaux to break the cardinal rule of mice and fall in love with a Princess named Pea. The Princess Pea is partially responsible for a broken-hearted dungeon rat named Chiaroscuro who plots his revenge in the darkness. Miggory Sow, a young servant girl gone nearly deaf from repeated clouts to the ear, longs to become a beautiful princess herself. All of these characters, mixed together with a hearty serving of soup, a spool of red thread, and a large dose of imagination, create one of the most warm-hearted and insightful children’s books I’ve read all year.

I know it may sound silly writing this, but reading this book gave me a serious case of the warm fuzzies. The anonymous, omniscient narrator creates an comforting, whimsical atmosphere and addresses us as "you, reader" every so often, until I could almost hear the author’s voice as if she was reading it aloud to me in a gigantic library, filled with dusty books, bright sunlight, and overstuffed armchairs. Kate DiCamillo weaves a wonderful world out of her words, a kingdom created by children’s beliefs. There is no sense of time or history in this world, nor geography, as the Kingdom of Dor is completely fictional but surrounded and visited by diplomats from actual countries, such as France. The members of royalty wear their crowns and gowns all the time, fathers are a great deal less intelligent than their daughters, and animals can speak if they so choose. The adorable black-and-white illustrations by Timothy Basil Ering offered me visual windows into the story without biasing my own interpretations of the setting.

This novel is not all fluff and fairy dust, however. DiCamillo makes use of some interesting symbolism with the use of darkness and light, comparing the sparkly world the princess lives in with the inky shadows of the labyrinthine dungeon Chiaroscuro inhabits. Her characterisation is magnificent. She builds a strong cast of characters with fears and doubts and wishes and weaknesses, and all in a relatively short amount of time. I felt myself relating to the impossible wish of Miggory Sow, the inner doubts of Despereaux, and the loneliness of Chiaroscuro. Even the villains of the story are given motives and explanations for their actions.

I’m going to be keeping this book for a very long time. See, I want to be able to read this to my children, my grandchildren, and if I am very fortunate, my great-grandchildren as well. The Tale of Despereaux is timeless. Believe me, in an age of war, greed, and frivolous technology, a spoonful of good old-fashioned magic sure comes in handy. Chicken Soup for the Soul has got nothing on this tasty stew. Grab a serving and enjoy.

[Elizabeth Vail]