I picked this book up post-hype and after not really watching more than about 10 minutes of the movie (there really is something to be said for the movie-going experience over the at-home one). My expectations were tempered with the worry that comes when a book has been so talked about and featured in the media as Desperaux, but I needn’t have worried.
Desperaux is a story with many layers. It’s a cute animal fable with an adorable hero. It’s a love story between our hero and a princess. It’s a story that addresses hate and it addresses the darker side of nature, and how even the darkest creatures can crave the light. I wasn’t expecting the depth of character that DiCamillo invested in her characters, and I wanted to keep reading.
Desperaux is the only surviving mouse in his mother’s final litter. Born small and with his eyes open, his mother and father both write him off, but he survives. He’s tinier than his siblings and is different from the start, preferring to read books rather than eat them. He falls in love with the Princess Pea. She is enchanted with the tiny mouse, but her father, who hates rats – and equates all rodents with them – chases him away. For allowing himself to be seen by and talk to humans, the mouse council – members of whom include Desperaux’s own father and brother – decide to punish him with a death sentence, and they send him to the dungeon, ruled in darkness by the rats.
In the basement, we meet Chiaroscuro, a rat who loves the light but is forced to live in the darkness after a brief trip up to the castle living area ended with a terrible accident. He seethes and plans his revenge in the darkness, using a slow-witted servant girl with her own tragic past as a pawn in his game.
This book won the Newbery Award in 2004, and as you delve into the book, you can see why. For a children’s book, the characters’ backgrounds are incredible in their detail and complexity. I was amazed at DiCamillo’s ability to create characters with such depth and yet still make them accessible to children. The story moved along at a pace that kept me turning pages; I wanted to know what was going to happen next. Timothy Basil Ering’s illustrations were stark and beautiful, adding more depth to the story by adding to the vision the author’s words painted in my imagination.
There are some very good teaching guides for Desperaux available. Candlewick Press offers an illustrated discussion guide. Scholastic’s reader’s guide considers the movie and includes some illustrations from the animated feature. Reading is Fundamental (RIF) also has a free, downloadable Teacher’s Guide.