20 November 2011

The Tale of Despereaux (plus BONUS DICAMILLO)

Guys, I'm pretty sure Kate DiCamillo is a time traveler. Or a vampire.

How else to explain the way her books read like dispatches from the past? I wrote of The Magician's Elephant that "it feels like it was recently discovered in an attic in London, written in spidery brown ink on yellowed parchment," and the same could be said of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane or 2003's Newbery Medal winner The Tale of Despereaux. All are fairy tales in a very old sense: before they were morality plays, before they were comforts for children, when they were thought experiments for human emotion and imagination. There's always a great deal of darkness in her stories, and qualified, quiet happy endings--but everything, everything is suffused with love.

Despereaux Tilling is a misfit mouse: born with his eyes open, with overlarge ears and a tiny body prone to fainting. Where a proper rodent forages for crumbs, he's transfixed by the beauty of stained glass and music the others don't hear. Where they nibble books, he finds himself reading them, learning by heart the story of a brave knight and the beautiful princess he loves. One day he seeks out the source of the song and ends up meeting--and speaking to--the Princess Pea, an act forbidden by the Mouse Council that gets him exiled to the dangerous, rat-infested dungeons of the castle. The book is also the tale of a broken-hearted rat named Chiaroscuro, a lonesome, battered servant girl called Miggery Sow, and their plot to kidnap Pea. Despereaux bravely sets out to free her.

Not only is the story exciting, scary, and sweet (with beautiful, inky illustrations by Timothy Basil Ering), DiCamillo's authorial asides frame the whole thing as a story about stories, saying in the end
I would like it very much if you thought of me 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.
"Stories are light," Gregory the jailer told Despereaux.
Reader, I hope you have found some light here.
I loved this book so much I wished it was three times longer. When I found myself too close to the end yesterday, I had to buy another DiCamillo for the subway ride home: so I acquired The Tiger Rising.

Tiger is as uncompromising and spare as a Flannery O'Connor short story. It's about Rob Horton, a twelve-year-old boy with a dead mother, a persistent rash on his legs, and no friends, who comes across an amazing thing in the Florida woods: a real tiger, pacing and pacing in a cage. A strange, defiant new girl at school, Sistine Bailey, quickly becomes the only person he trusts with his discovery. She is determined to let the tiger go--but at what cost? It's a bleak and heartbreaking little book, with nothing easy or gentle about it. But somehow DiCamillo's prose (which I am trying not to call "luminous") imbues the tale with beauty and joy. Seriously: I think she's my favorite modern children's author. Friends with kids, take note.

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