If your child reads just one book this summer, let it be this one. Let it be The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo.

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This tale of an unlikely hero’s quest is told in the style of a classic adventure story. It takes place in a castle, as all good adventures should. The hero is a very young, very small mouse named Despereaux, who is emboldened by true love to step beyond his world and is banished for it. No one expects him to return from the dungeon; but he does, and with the sole purpose of descending back into the darkness to rescue his beloved, the Princess.

Of course, the little mouse is not alone in his quest. He is both helped and hindered by those around him, and we soon realize how deeply each person’s reactions and decisions affect others. But hope, just like hurt, can come from unexpected sources, and appearances can be deceiving. Despereaux himself must learn to be brave; he must learn to become the hero.

Little Despereaux faces rejection from his family, expulsion from his home, separation from the one he loves, and the wiles of a particularly vengeful rat. The rat too has a story; as does the serving girl and the jailer and the king. They all fit together, whether they like it or not. Along the way they all learn something about dealing with loss, longing to be loved, and the comfort afforded by something as simple as a bowl of good soup.

This is no foolish parody, but rather quite a serious study of human nature; about how it can be hurt and how it can choose to respond, about why it desires music and light and beauty and why those things are worth seeking. It explores notions of justice and chivalry that have fascinated humans for centuries. Above all, this story is about love. Not the fleeting sensation of affection, but the love that is willing to forgive and to sacrifice; the love that is willing to serve.

Ideal for readers age 8 and up, Despereaux would also make a splendid family read-aloud for children much younger. With enriching language and a timeless storytelling feel, the very short chapters are easy to fall into and rather addictive. The plot does feature themes of parental abuse, abandonment, and death that are distressing; but the feelings evoked are thoughtfully discussed in close company with the narrator, who constantly urges the reader to think critically about what is happening. The thoughts and feelings of different characters – with names like Miggery Sow and Chiaroscuro – are treated with reality and empathy throughout.

Please, please read this story with the children in your life. Despereaux is the hero we all need – the hero we can all become.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame

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