lessons from the tale of despereaux

I think I should just start you off with this quote: “When times are terrible, soup is the answer.”

Enough said, right?

This book will make you want soup more than you thought you could possibly want it. It will also make you smile and hope for humanity even though it is a fairy tale and the main character is a mouse.

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of mice and soup

The Tale of Desperaux by Kate DiCamillo is about a mouse named Desperaux who’s born with his eyes open. He’s smaller and has bigger ears than other mice, and he’s a textbook daydreamer. He’d rather sit in the library reading about knights and princesses than do mouse things. Naturally, he meets and falls in love with an actual princess, which gets him banished from the mouse community and sent to the palace dungeon.

But little does he know, in the darkness of the dungeon, a rat who once went upstairs for soup and for light is plotting his revenge against the young princess.

This may be a juvenile fiction book, but it’s really a story for all ages. If the name Kate DiCamillo sounds familiar, it’s because she also wrote Because of Winn-Dixie, which I have never read. That got made into a movie, which I have never seen.

Unfortunately, they also made a movie out of The Tale of Despereaux, and that one I have seen. Let’s just… we’ll just pretend it never happened.

The book, however, is a gem, and it was a huge part of my late childhood. I think it was fourth grade when I read it, and I probably asked my mom to buy it for me at the Scholastic Book Fair. Ah, the Book Fair. Comment down below if your school had one. It was basically a pop-up bookstore that came around a couple times a year and set up shop after school. And it was awesome!

Anyways, it’s been easily ten years since I’ve read this, but it’s definitely stood the test of time. It an endearing, heartwarming, but not entirely carefree story. I mean, it gets dark at points and deals with some dark themes. I still cringe when the narrator describes how one of the characters, a serving girl named Miggery Sow, had her ears boxed by abusive guardians so many times that they look like cauliflowers. It’s awful!

But holy cow, the writing in this is so succinct and clear. It’s not a very long book, and it has some of the shortest chapters I’ve ever seen. But every word and every detail matters. The book is split into four parts, so you really have three separate storylines that all get woven together in the last act. In 268 pages!

And even with the split, you actually get to know each of the characters enough to care about their stories, even though one of them is a rat who’s technically the antagonist (kind of. You’ll see). It’s such a vivid picture, and the storytelling is, honestly, really masterful.

 

dear reader

There’s another very noticeable thing this story does, and that’s that it breaks the fourth wall. Not in a post-structuralist way, but… close. So, you know you’re in a story from the moment you enter it. What I mean is, it wants you to be aware that you’re being told a story.

The first page before the first chapter says, “The world is dark, and light is precious. Come closer, dear reader. You must trust me. I am telling you a story.” It’s told from the POV of a third-person, omniscient narrator who consistently refers back to you and calls you “reader.” It does kind of take you out of the story, and I think it stood out more to me as an adult than it did when I was ten, but I think that’s the point.

See, this book plays with the conventions of storytelling a bit. Really, I think that even though you’re called “reader,” this story is supposed to make you feel like you’re being told a story. Like the grandpa in The Princess Bride. In fact, this story lays bare the conventions of a fairytale in a very similar way that The Princess Bride does. Often, the narrator will pull you out of the scene to explain something to you or to make something literal.

For example, at one point the narrator says, “Reader, you may ask this question, in fact you must ask this question: Is it ridiculous for a very small, sickly, big-eared mouse to fall in love wth a beautiful human princess named Pea? The answer is… yes. Of course, it’s ridiculous. Love is ridiculous.”

Now, in the hands of a lesser writer (like me), this wouldn’t really work. It would feel like you’re just telling, not showing, or ham-fisting your themes. Now putting aside the fact that this is middle-grade fiction, I think that the reason being literal works in Despereaux‘s favor is because it’s contributing to the feeling of being told a story as opposed to shown. The tone is established from the beginning, so you know that this is a story that’s going to be a little self-referential from the get-go.

It’s not without a hint of irony, either. In fact, whenever the narrator spells something out for you, I think it’s supposed to be ironic. It’s not that the narrator thinks you’re stupid–it’s that the story is reminding you that it’s, well, a story. It comes off more witty than patronizing, in my opinion. It’s really just playing with a trope.

What can we learn from this? If you’re going to have a witty, ironic, self-referential narrator, do it with intention, make sure it’s consistent throughout, and make sure it fits the mood and tone of the story. It also helps if you’re Kate DiCamillo.

Another important thing is that less is more. Using brief descriptions, intentional dialogue, and short, succinct scenes, this story is able to pack a lot into a small space. It really doesn’t lack, though. I mean, it does have illustrations, but I think that even without them, the imagery would still be vivid. It’s a rich, beautifully crafted fairytale and there’s no way this isn’t leaving my shelves. I highly suggest you read it!

And then go eat some soup.

Image by MorningbirdPhoto from Pixabay

2 thoughts on “lessons from the tale of despereaux

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