The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
Summary: The story is divided into 4 books. The first describes Despereaux's early life. He's not like other mice - his ears are too big, he was born with his eyes open, he can read, and he completely ignores the correct rules of conduct for mice, to his family's dismay. One day while exploring the castle, he hears music and is drawn to young Princess Pea's bedroom, where her father the King is singing to her. He falls instantly and deeply in love with her, his conception of love based on the only story he's read, about a chivalrous knight. This kind of un-mouselike behaviour gets him thrown in the dungeon by the other mice. The second book introduces Chiaroscuro, a rat who instead of loving the darkness of his home in the dungeon, loves the light so much he ends up in the castle in the queen's soup, with disastrous results. The third book describes young Miggery Sow, a dim-witted girl who was sold by her own father but still dreams of being a princess. The fourth book connects the lives of the mouse, the rat, the girl, and the princess with some surprising twists.
What made me pick it up? I confess, I read this one before the Newbery challenge officially started (same with Higher Power of Lucky). It was one of our picks for my library's children's book club. I also loved Because of Winn-Dixie, so I was happy to try this one out.
Overall: It's a lovely little book, with an old-fashioned tone, involving fairly complex themes of light and dark, good vs evil, and the power of love and forgiveness. Small, sweet, dreamy Despereaux is so fragile yet he manages to be so hopeful and brave, despite just about everything being stacked against him. His drama queen French mother, who gave him his unhappy name, provides some comic relief but is also awful. His entire family's treatment of him is so dreadful, it's heart-breaking, even for rodents. I enjoyed the clever intertwining of seemingly unrelated characters, which helps to lead to several happy endings.
My only quibble is the narrator frequently popping up to ask readers if they know what a word means. This device just irks me. It's also found to an irritating degree in the Lemony Snicket books, but that certainly hasn't hampered their success. So maybe it's just me.