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For Readers Age 10 - 14
Grades 6th - 10th

A bit disappointing: Tale of Despereaux
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Publisher's Description:

DiCamillo, Kate. (2003) The Tale of Despereaux. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press. ISBN 0—7636-1722-9. Author recommended reading age 9-12. sees it of interest to ages 10-12 but is uncomfortable recommending this book as some foundational lessons of the story are disturbing.

 Publisher’s description: “Welcome to the story of Despereaux Tilling, a mouse who is in love with music, stories, and a princess named Pea. It is also the story of a rat called Roscuro, who lives in the darkness and covets a world filled with light. And it is the story of Miggery Sow, a slow-witted serving girl who harbors a simple, impossible wish. These three characters are about to embark on a journey that will lead them down into a horrible dungeon, up into a glittering castle, and, ultimately, into each other’s lives. And what happens then? As Kate DiCamillo would say: Reader, it is your destiny to find out. “ 

Respect for self and others: This includes integrity (adherence to a code of conduct or value system), honesty vs. manipulation or lying, compassion, caring for others (characters not focused on getting their way no matter what) self respect--main character does not let others denigrate him or her; use of self control and self-discipline ; taking charge of own behaviour; fairness to others (such as taking turns and avoiding the blame game). Reader should ask themselves “How does the protagonist depict their peers?” “Would you want others to treat you this way? Should everyone act this way?” This includes true friendships that do not involve regular lying, deceit or manipulation; considering consequences of actions prior to acting; owning up to responsibility once an action has been taken.

Rather than spoiled, the Princess Pea character also shows intelligence, courage, empathy and compassion.  

Disturbing, however, is the author’s treatment of forgiveness. In separate incidents, we are told that both Despereaux and Princess Pea fake their forgiveness to the other person as, instead of wanting that person to feel better, it is merely done as an attempt to cure their own brokenness. In fact, we are told that it is impossible to forgive the other person!  This is not only profoundly wrong, in itself it portrays a serious weakness in the story. It is possible to forgive others, even of the most grievous crimes. More importantly perhaps, neither the abuser nor the victim can truly achieve healing and happiness without sincere forgiveness. So for this author to be so blatant in stating not once, but twice, that this was not possible teaches a hideous lie to its readers.

Portrayal of Authority figures: The positive portrayal of parents, teachers, police officers and other “good” authority figures common in a child’s life is a positive influence upon the child’s own moral development. This includes actively-parenting mother and father figures. Minimization of parental involvement in the character’s activities or the portrayal of authority figures as inferior present poor role models. Also to be avoided are main characters that deceive parents and teachers to accomplish goals, and overuse sarcasm towards authority figures. Ask yourself “Are parents seen as positive or negative influence in the character's life?”

The authority figures portrayed are often true to traditional fairy tales of medieval times. Princess Pea is respectful of her father but others as well; Despereaux also postures respect of position. 

On the other hand, in traditional style we would expect upon the reuniting of Mig and her father for them to have a happy family again. Instead, we are told that he spent the rest of his days treating her like a princess. This is more typical of today’s children’s entertainment in that children are portrayed as having equal rights to adults and as the center of attention. So we are left with the father pandering to his daughter rather than the feeling of a normal hierarchical relationship. Another inappropriate lesson that has a major impact upon the reader.

Citizenship and Patriotism: Loyalty to family, team or group, school, community and world; caring for and being considerate of these groups. Pride to be part of that group or nationality.

Examples of loyalty or unity are mixed. Princess Pea, the King and Queen have a very loving and loyal family, and their servants demonstrate loyalty and love for the royal family as well. However, our protagonist isn’t Princess Pea but, rather, Despereaux, who has cruel parents and siblings. While he offers his father forgiveness near the end, the family unity is not restored. Forgiveness is not sincere as it is stated as serving Despereaux, not done selflessly and with love for his father.  There is never family loyalty or pride, and the dysfunction in the family is disturbing.  

He is loyal out of love for Princess Pea, and since a cross-species relationship would not be appropriate, they remain friends.

Justice and Balance: A just distribution between good and evil (with good outweighing evil in the presence of the storyline); demonstration of right and wrong; making decisions to enact the above values rather than simply choosing from two bad possibilities; Ask yourself “Is the emphasis on the positive elements or negative?”

This book in some aspects is excellent in good overcoming evil, portrayed as light and darkness. Rosuro is sure that his job is to make people suffer. Yet once he felt the light (goodness), he couldn’t resist it. It is realistic in that, since Rosuro chose revenge when his heart broke, he never quite heals nor experiences the fully happy ending that Despereaux and Princess Pea have. A lesson to do the right thing; sins can be confessed and forgiven but their effects never eliminated. Deep seated pain, the kind that comes from broken love, can cause someone to turn to evil and, once done, they are never whole again. 

However, by the story’s end, the preponderance of justice is unbalanced. Although Despereaux succeeds and can continue a friendship with Princess Pea, neither of them overcome the evils that plague their family relations nor does Rosuro or Mig. Thus there is no real resolution as the negative elements in the story outweigh the positive.

Aesthetic aspects Of life ExperienceLook for a storyline portrayal of beauty, health, and selfless love vs. hedonistic behaviours (sexuality, selfishness, obsessiveness, materialism), profanity, gore and violence. Are nature and environment respected or exploited? Look for dark elements; watch out for humor that is negative, denigrates others excessively, uses metaphors to denigrate the sacred.

The writing style of the book almost is like music, seeming to be a song. DiCamillo’s structure of this story aids the reader to be part of the experience. The lives of the main characters are told separately as if they were books within a book. The narrator talks to us, the reader, and we traverse back in time then forward into the present within each chapter with sufficient explanation so as not to be lost. The style holds the reader’s attention. 

Despereaux’s self-efficacy feeds his courage and he is filled with hope. The love of the royal family is strong and prominent. “The king loved the queen and, without her, he was lost.”  And what was extraordinary about the king was that he was a “man who was able and willing to love with the whole of his heart”.  So hope and love are reoccurring themes.  

And yet, because much of the story describes the abuse suffered by Mig, her simple-mindedness, and abandonment by the family (Mig and Despereaux both abandoned by their fathers in different ways),  it is unnecessarily dark for long stretches of the book.  The level of detail of negative elements is true to the style of traditional fairy tales, not of Disney stories, which may surprise readers not accustomed to those.  Reading such extensive detail about Mig’s dysfunctions leaves a deeper impression upon the reader than if watching the animated character in the movie.

Other things to Consider:Other aspects of this book of interest or importance. For example, does it portray Wiccan practices and accurate use of tools of which some parents might object, does it contain hidden meanings in metaphors that may prove offensive to some families; does it address personal issues such as puberty or pregnancy.

In spite of Despereaux’s success, the reader is left feeling disturbed. Throughout the story the beatings suffered by Mig are recounted and she suffers a hearing loss because of it. Her physical and mental disabilities are portrayed so negatively that it could humiliate children with disabilities, obesity or low self-esteem. Other children might be conditioned to feel superior to the inferior rather than compassion, as no compassion is shown in this story.  

The portrayal of the Tribunal council is questionable. It might be interpreted as representing organized religion as hypocritical. 

Despereaux’s confession to initiating forbidden touch and liking it is reminiscent of the lies that sexual predators tell their child-victims. It can also be interpreted in other ways, and ultimately if the author wanted to have the protagonist break societal rules, she should have made clear the inadequacy of the rule so that the need to break it was also clear, and used another type of rule that was not physical touch.

Because it is fundamentally disturbing in its darkness and refusal to permit the basic humaneness with which we are all born, does not recommend this book.


ACTIVITIES: The publisher provides a classroom teaching guide at


So what do YOU think? Read our thoughts on the book and join in the discussion on the blog! 

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