Review: The Tale of Despereaux

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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Series Review: Bear and Mouse

I look forward to kicking off each month with a review of a series, collection, or list of related titles. Think of it as a package deal for my fellow readers. I’ll begin with a favorite in our family: the Bear and Mouse books, written by Bonny Becker and illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton.

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The series begins with A Visitor for Bear; it sets the premise for the whole series, though the books follow no sequence and could easily be read independently of one another. Bear, a very particular sort of fellow, leads a comfortable and solitary life in his cozy home. He is not prepared to become friends with the cheerful and persistent Mouse, who drops in unexpectedly one morning on his well-ordered domicile. Bear tries to dismiss this unwelcome companion, but soon finds how much more pleasant it is to enjoy life with a friend.

Once Mouse and Bear have shared that first pot of tea their subsequent adventures always begin the same way: the grumpy Bear at home, interrupted by a knock on the door from his exuberant little friend. Bear’s resistance to Mouse’s arrangements for birthday parties, sleepovers, holidays, and library trips begins to sound familiar, and we realize that perhaps there is a little bit of Bear in all of us. How easy it would be to stay within the familiar comfort of our own home! But like Bear, little readers are assured that it is worthwhile to step outside our own front doors, to make friends and to celebrate life together.

The relationship between Bear and Mouse is humorous and charming, and their experiences are gently encouraging. Becker’s text is intelligent and expressive, making any of these tremendous fun to read aloud. The illustrations are soft and sweet, warmly inviting us into Bear’s lovely home (I can’t be the only adult who would like to live there). Additionally, Candlewick Press publishes gorgeous books, so the color and balance of the words with the pictures and even the weight of the paper makes these books delightful to read. Since they indirectly address an array of childhood experiences in no particular order, these would make splendid occasion gifts from grandparents or other relatives who want to help build a nice collection over time. They are appropriate for toddlers who are ready to sit still on up to six or seven years old.

I hope you enjoy meeting Mouse and Bear. We all need friends like this, and with the right encouragement, we can show our children how to be such friends to others.

If you liked this series you might also enjoy: The Frog and Toad Storybook Treasury by Arnold Lobel

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