Tuesday, November 4, 2014

‘The Tale of Despereaux’ by Kate DiCamillo

Cover: The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo. Colored-line drawing image of a mouse running, carrying a needle "sword" with a piece of red thread tied through the needle's eye.
What struck me when reading The Tale of Despereaux by author Kate DiCamillo (for my Children’s Literature class), was her use of a narrator speaking directly to the reader, setting the scene, commenting on the action, and on the motives in the characters’ hearts.

To suspend disbelief, DiCamillo scrupulously honored the rules she had established for the world where the story is set. In a video interview produced by Wadsworth Cengage Learning, she talks about one such rule, that the rats, mice and humans can all understand each other. This rule is very consistently maintained throughout the story.

The story is written in a third-person point of view, but with a narrator that addresses comments directly to the reader. In a Coda, the narrator (or is it DiCamillo?) asks readers to think of her “as a mouse telling you a story, this story, with the whole of my heart, whispering it in your ear in order to save myself from the darkness, and to save you from the darkness, too” (270).

In the video interview, DiCamillo shares her misgivings about a narrator that was “so intrusive.” It was one of the things that “terrified” her when she wrote the novel.

The Tale of Despereaux marked a huge departure for DiCamillo from the genre of southern realistic fiction that she’d built a reputation on, and she shares in the video her insecurity about feeling that she “wasn’t supposed” to write fantasy. But I think the themes addressed in this book really transcend genre.

In the course of the story, this novel addresses “the interesting fate” that “awaits almost everyone, mouse or man, who does not conform” (25), of deep whole-being desires, like that of Roscuro for the light, and of Miggery Sow to be a princess. Of Despereaux Tilling seeking to be worthy like a knight in a chivalrous tale. Of hearts that mend crooked and of never quite fitting in.

From my own experience of being unable to fit in as a child, of wanting to be accepted but being someone like Roscuro “who never really belonged,” I think these themes would appeal to a child. And I see young girls dressed like “Elsa” and “Anna” from Frozen during Halloween. Might there not be a little bit of Miggery Sow in them?

It was difficult for me to characterize this story as either “low” or “high” fantasy; instead, I believe that it incorporates qualities of both. The story features talking animals — an element of “low” fantasy as identified in The Joy of Children’s Literature, but the story involves an arduous quest undertaken by the hero. And while it was written for children, it is not a lighthearted story.

When I reviewed an overview by Denise Johnson of the style of illustrations in picturebooks, the term “Impressionistic” most closely suggested Timothy Basil Ering’s style. They “emphasize[d] light, movement, and color over detail” (84). In this case, the “color” referred to in the description is variations in gray shading.

A biographical sketch of Ering for a Reading Rockets interview states that The Tale of Despereaux was “originally published with black and white pencil drawings.”

In the interview, Ering shares that he was invited to be part of an illustrators’ contest, with each artist contributor given a “snippet” of DiCamillo’s manuscript. He explored several media for illustrations in black-and-white and the softness and detail of pencil drawings appealed to him.

Ering later produced full-color illustrations for a specially-bound edition, which, as stated in his online portfolio, was published by Candlewick Press in February 2008.

I thought that Ering’s black, white and gray-shaded drawings very nicely complimented the themes in DiCamillo’s book, particularly the dichotomy (and all the areas of subtle gradation) between darkness and light.

Works Cited: 
  • DiCamillo, Kate. The Tale of Despereaux. Illus. Timothy Basil Ering. Cambridge: Candlewick Press, 2003. Print.
  • Ering, Timothy Basil. A Video Interview with Timothy Basil Ering. Reading Rockets. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.
  • ----. “The Tale of Despereaux, Special Full Color Edition!” Portfolio. Web. 4 Nov. 2014
  • Johnson, Denise. The Joy of Children’s Literature. 2nd ed. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2012. Print.

Composed for Cuesta College’s ECE 234, Children’s Literature

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