There’s a lot lot LOT of childrens’ literature out there, and a lot lot LOT of it is very, very bad. My love for books began when I was just a wee little reader, and I plowed through as much crap (Christopher Pike, Sweet Valley Twins) as I did quality (Madeline L’engle, Bunnicula (yes? anyone??), E.B. White). In the subsequent generations of kids books there have been an equal share of substance and fluff, and though I don’t have kids or really know very many kids I’ve still retained a love for and a curiosity about what’s going on in the world of youth literature. And, man, I can still really get sucked in. All six Harry Potters had me up late, feverish, red-eyed, metaphorical flashlight under metaphorical covers, too tired to stay awake at work.
This brings us to The Tale of Despereaux, a story of a smaller than average mouse with larger than average ears and exceedingly big, un-mousey dreams. It’s not a lightweight story. Our hero exists in an unsympathetic, vaguely British medieval land where soup has been outlawed and only outlaws carry soup spoons. He is the only survivor of his litter of baby mice, which inspires his melodramatic (and apparently, French) mother to name him Despereaux “for all the sadness, for the many despairs of this place”. His older siblings are called Furlough and Merlot. Har har. Another of our protagonists is a witless servant girl, sold by her father in exchange for a tablecloth, cauliflower-eared and half-deaf from frequent blows to the head. The whole tale is shot through with veins of humorous darkness like this, which helps the story transcend its cutesy premise and simple plotting and climb into some greater truths. DiCamillo even says it herself: ” Stories that are not pretty have a certain value too, I suppose. Everything, as you well know (having lived in this world long enough to have figured out a thing or two for yourself) cannot always be sweetness and light.”
The balance between light and dark is the major theme that drives this story. Another of our characters is a castle dungeon-inhabiting rat named Chiaroscuro (an Italian word meaning light mixed with darkness, “look it up”, prompts the author) who is fascinated by the idea of light, having only seen it once in his short ratty life. His striving for the world above leads him down an even darker path than that on which he started, bringing us to another strength of DiCamillo’s storytelling: her characterizations. All are fleshed with an even hand: our wise narrator assures us of their failings as well as their triumphs, of the dark pockets in their hearts as well as the lights of hope burning in their souls. No hero is without his foibles, no villain without her potential for redemption.
As young adult books go, this one wins. It’s a stock fairytale, but one grounded in realism. That, coupled with large swaths of black humor and the occasional educational tidbit make this one more than worthy of its gold Newberry Medal.