Illustration by Ben Beechener

“Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark. Begin at the beginning. Tell Gregory a story. Make some light.” – Gregory the Jailer

What makes a book “children’s literature?” Are there singing animals and fairy princesses? Is it completely censored of anything overprotective parents might find inappropriate? Or can it reawaken a sense of childlike wonder in its reader? Children’s literature is a highly disputed genre; there are many literary works that despite being written for a younger audience, feature profound themes that capture the minds of adults. Personally, I associate The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo with my childhood because it is one of the books my mother read to my siblings and me as children, and because it makes me feel a sense of wonder.

There is nothing quite like The Tale of Despereaux; it is a unique book that deals with themes of love, grief, forgiveness, and hope. It is ideal to read to children because of its straightforward plot but is also enjoyable for adults because of DiCamillo’s elegant writing. Even if you are reading it alone, the narrator’s welcoming voice, speaking in the second person and inviting you to engage with the story, makes you feel like someone is reading aloud to you. I have returned to this book several times as a young adult and it has never failed to amaze and enchant me. The story is pure and simple, but it is also heartbreakingly honest.

The Tale of Despereaux tells the story of Despereaux Tilling, a mouse born in a fairy tale style castle who is an outcast in his family and community. Despereaux shows no interest in “proper” mouse pastimes—scurrying, finding crumbs, chewing through the pages of books—but instead spends his days enjoying music, reading adventure stories, and falling in love with the beautiful Princess Pea. But when the young princess is kidnapped, it is up to Despereaux to rescue her.

DiCamillo employs fairy tale motifs throughout the book. The story is structured with various fairy tale elements—a distant kingdom, talking animals, and a princess in need of rescuing. The princess named “Pea” is a playful reference to “The Princess and the Pea.” Fairy tales also appear in the narrative itself, since Despereaux loves to read classic adventure stories in the castle library. Using phrases such as “once upon a time” and “quest” and “knight in shining armor,” the narrator promises adventure, bravery, and limitless possibilities. 

However, there are also themes such as grief, abandonment, loneliness, and despair. The king and the princess are mourning the death of the queen. The melancholic rat Roscuro longs for a life with light but feels he can never have it because as a rat, he is doomed to spend eternity in the dark. The orphaned servant girl Miggery Sow wishes to be a princess, a dream that will never come to fruition. When I first encountered this book as a child, I did not comprehend the life lessons that it instills in its younger audience. The story is ultimately about the dichotomy between darkness and light and how to carry on when it seems like there is no light left. The world isn’t always a nice place and everyone is vulnerable and open to making mistakes and being hurt. You can’t have everything you want and you can’t stop bad things from happening. 

DiCamillo’s characters find their way back to the light through love, forgiveness, and hope. However, the thing that truly helps them heal is storytelling. Despereaux, Pea, Roscuro, and Miggery Sow are all searching for light, and as Gregory the jailer tells Despereaux, stories are light; they are the answer to loneliness and despair throughout the book. When Despereaux is mocked by the other mice who live in the castle, he finds comfort and later courage in the stories he reads in the library. The Tale of Despereaux aligns the characters and the reader because it is about the power of storytelling, but ultimately, it is a story that is supposed to help you. In the coda, DiCamillo finishes her story with these words: “Reader, I hope you have found some light here.”

Because I have also gotten through difficult times in my life by reading and rereading my favorite novels, this book has had a huge impact on me. I have done my best to describe Kate DiCamillo’s award-winning masterpiece, but truth be told, nothing I can say would do it justice. I would recommend The Tale of Despereaux to anyone, child or adult. As a bonus, it is an incredibly easy read—if you sat down with the intention of reading it start to finish, it would take less than two hours. If you want to take a couple hours off from studying, I highly recommend you go to the Bod and spend some time with Despereaux and his friends; I hope you find a little light.