The Tale of Despereaux
DiCamillo, Kate. (2003) The Tale of Despereaux. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press. ISBN 0—7636-1722-9. Author recommended reading age 9-12. Litland.com sees it of interest to ages 10-12 but is uncomfortable recommending this book as some foundational lessons of the story are disturbing.
What a life to be born into! A mother who is a pessimist. The only survivor of his litter. Ears too big and born with eyes open instead of closed, he was unusual. The rest of the family assume something to be wrong with him and leave him to die. He lived, but was sickly. Always reminded by his mother that he was a disappointment. Others saw his differences as weaknesses whereas he knew (his big ears) were a strength. And he could read, which no mouse can do. “Something is not right with you” they said. There was a time in our country’s history, a time we’d rather forget, when we heard that said about people who were “different”.
A modern fairy tale, The Tale of Despereaux captures the darkness of those traditional fairy tales along with some of the moral lessons, virtues, and good overcoming evil. The thing about fairy tales is the perception that they are for little kids. Yet original fairy tales, like many classics, were meant for adults and eventually adopted as children’s lessons. While the movie avoids the dark feeling of these old tales and is enjoyable by all ages, this book is not. The difficulty, then, is that older kids aren’t drawn to books where the main character is a mouse. Perhaps it is a sign of our modern times that for kids to experience the book, they seem to need its characters to be just like them physically. Yet the joy of good fairy tales, like any fantasy, is precisely that: the characters’ experiences are our own too. Which then makes some of the lessons in this story disturbing.
And like other stories about medieval times, this one has a council of elders, unfriendly parents, dungeons, a princess, sharp knives, darkness and light. Falling in love with Princess Pea, Despereaux’s own father betrays him, calling upon the Tribunal to punish him for this cross-species friendship, which diverges from traditional fairy tales. Also on page 53, Despereaux admits to forbidden touch (being touched by a human) and liking it. These details are odd and can be interpreted inappropriately by children. Despereaux is forced to confess of his sins, which really weren’t sins at all. (Meanwhile, prisoners in the dungeon are taunted by rats to confess of their very real sins.) And contrary to traditional fairy tales where offering forgiveness is done sincerely as the right thing to do, we are told that Despereaux (and later Princess Pea) offer forgiveness not for the benefit of the person they are forgiving, but to make themselves feel better instead.
This author also tends to write-out parent figures of her plots. In this story, parents are either dead or cruel. When Mig’s father resumes his role in her life, he instead spends the rest of his days treating her like a princess, placing the child in control and superiority. Overall authority figures are poor examples for our kids.
The story’s narrator has a lack of faith in others and in the existence of selflessness altogether, which leads her to state that it would be ridiculous for Despereaux to be able to forgive his father, since the father had sent him to his death. Thus Despereaux offers forgiveness instead to heal his own heart, out of selfishness rather than selflessness. So this protagonist who otherwise seems to show integrity instead lacks integrity. It is out of character and doesn’t sit well. It is not uncommon today for some authors to have difficulty in believing in the existence of selflessness and project that into the characters they write, and we see that here.
The manner in which the Tribunal is portrayed throughout the story is odd in that there is a feeling it goes beyond them simply being bad guys; they seem to be a metaphor for religious bodies. At the end of the story, they vote to pretend something never happened. In other words, to lie and cover up the truth. And there is no good to counter that action or their evil. Coupled with the treatment of parent characters, inability to believe in selflessness, and that the Tribunal act as the accusers of sin (the word “sin” is also used several times in the book), we are left to wonder if this (whether subconsciously or intentionally) is meant to be a negative portrayal of religion in society.
By today’s standards, Mig is low IQ and may suffer physical and mental disorders. Her mental slowness is regularly described to us, and to a lesser extent her obesity. I have to wonder: if I were the overweight kid in class who was “slow” and already felt dumb, would I feel even worse about myself during reading time while these descriptions were read out loud to the class? Yes I would feel horrible. It seems there would be more constructive ways of describing Mig which would allow the reader to picture her stereotypical medieval character without being quite so negative and unforgiving.
On the positive side, this tale does offer a constant premise of hope, love, courage and perseverance. Since Rosuro’s heart had been broken and “mended in crooked ways” from his behavior (getting revenge), he never quite belonged in the light or in the dark. But the “good guys” have the happy ending, fulfilling the hope and rewarding perseverance. As courageous as Despereaux is, perhaps his greatest virtue is honesty even in the face of grave danger to himself, thus demonstrating integrity time and time again. He accepts who he is, is smart enough to see his unique qualities as strengths and use them to succeed in spite of being the smallest and weakest character in the story. Rather than underdog, shall we say a true undermouse?
The story has some moral lessons. We are told how every action has a series of consequences. Mig’s father shows sincere remorse for his actions, Rosuro, by offering forgiveness, “shed some happiness into another life”, Despereaux and Princess Pea offer forgiveness even if not sincere, Despereaux’s father feels remorse sufficiently to destroy the drum.
Still, some aspects of the story were odd and the reader is left with an unsettled feeling at the end. The idea of inappropriate relations between species might be interpreted as society not approving relations between races or same-sex relations. It also, however, can trigger discomfort in the child who has suffered physical or sexual abuse. Since it is estimated that 1 out of 3 girls, and 1 out of 4 boys, suffer sexual abuse in America, and that the sexual predator commonly tells the child the inappropriate touch is love, is good for them, or that they will learn to enjoy it, this scene in the story is just disturbing.
Diversions from the character traits of the protagonists, excessive detail on Mig’s sufferings and dysfunctions, etc. all might have been handled differently so, in fairy tale style chosen by this author, closure would be had in the end. There are too many lost opportunities to build goodness and virtues into this story.
By the end of the story, although Despereaux succeeds at achieving the freedom to have his forbidden relationship with Princess Pea, his acts of honesty and perseverance towards his goal ultimately prove to be self-serving when it is mandated by the author that he could never forgive his father (and Princess Pea also could never forgive the killing of her mother). The narrator tells us, convinces us, conditions us that this is “of course” impossible. Because it is fundamentally disturbing in its darkness and refusal to permit the basic humaneness with which we are all born, Litland.com does not recommend this book.