Imagine a princess in peril, held at knifepoint in the deepest, darkest dungeon.
Now envision the kind of hero who will show up to save the day, possibly on a white horse.
What would this knight look like?
If you imagined a tiny little mouse with giant ears who faints a lot, then The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup and a Spool of Thread is certainly the book of your dreams. (And you've got quite the imagination.) Kate DiCamillo's Newbery Medal-winning story was published in 2003 and charmed reader and literary critics alike with its fairy tale story of a definitely unlikely hero.
The lovable title character, Despereaux, defies expectations. He learns to read, falls in love with a princess, and eventually goes on a quest to save her when she's kidnapped by an evil rat. But he's pretty bad at being a typical mouse. When he's born, his family thinks he's just, well…different. They shut him out and eventually send him to certain doom when he breaks the most important mouse rule: Never reveal yourself to humans.
Despereaux isn't the only character in the book who's unappreciated. The villain who tries to imprison the princess—a rat named Roscuro—becomes his angry and twisted self because the whole world outside the dungeon rejects him. And Miggery Sow, the servant girl who unwittingly aids Roscuro in his diabolical plan, has been abandoned and ridiculed for most of her life. Their paths cross in an exciting adventure where—well, we don't want to give it away.
Let's just say that Despereaux ends up getting the appreciation he deserves.
Dungeons and castles, rats and princesses, mice in shining armor: Kate DiCamillo weaves them all into an exciting adventure with lots of life lessons thrown in for good measure. It's a classic "little guy makes good" tale.
And who doesn't love rooting for the underdog? Shmoop sure does.
Despereaux's story is a bit (okay, a lot) fantastical and would probably never happen in the modern world, where Princess Pea could just text her father from the dungeon and send him a GPS pin with her exact location. All fantasy stories ask the reader to suspend disbelief and just come along for the ride.
Still, the story has a real-life inspirational message of perseverance and overcoming the odds. The characters in the book overcome all sorts of personal setbacks to achieve their goals, even when no one else believes in them. That's definitely a useful lesson for any reader who's facing a challenging task and isn't sure they're up to it. If a mouse can save a princess, you can definitely make the basketball team at 4'8".
Or at least try out for the team.
There's another important message in there, too. Sometimes people feel different because they're not good at things that most other people can do. Same for Despereaux. He was terrible at typical mouse skills: instead of nibbling books, he liked to read them; instead of hiding from people, he approached them; he loved music and light instead of dark and silence. He broke all the mouse rules; clearly, his talents lay elsewhere.
Does this mean he wasn't worthwhile? Nope, just a little different. Saving the princess requires him to have confidence in himself and his beliefs despite what others might think. Despereaux can't be judged by his tiny size or funny-looking ears.
The message here is not to be too hard on yourself if you feel different from your friends or family. It's a big world out there with room for all kinds of people with all kinds of skills. There's a warning in there as well: don't be quick to judge others by their outward qualities, either. There are consequences for underestimating or judging people you think are different, and those consequences can be pretty serious. People can surprise you.
Fairy tales may not be real, but they sure contain some truths about life. So if you ever find yourself in a dungeon staring at a mouse who says he's come to rescue you, believe him. You'll be glad you did.
All About the Author
For more on The Tale of Despereaux and its author, check out Kate DiCamillo's official website.
More Where That Came From
If you'd like a quick intro to more of Kate DiCamillo's award winning literature, check out Shmoop's take on Because of Winn-Dixie.
The Tale of Despereaux (2008)
If you'd like to see the cinematic take on The Tale of Despereaux, check out the 2008 feature film, which has Matthew Broderick voicing the character of Despereaux.
In an interview with Scholastic, Kate DiCamillo talks about her writing process and gives plenty of good advice to aspiring writers, including that they should focus on the story and not themselves.
The Unlikely Hero
Apparently, Kate DiCamillo got the idea for Despereaux from her son's friend, who requested a story about an unlikely hero with big ears.
Talking to Hermione
Emma Watson claims that portraying Princess Pea in the film version of The Tale of Despereaux was a much girlier experience than playing Hermione in the Harry Potter movies.
Don't know whether or not you want to watch the film adaptation of The Tale of Despereaux? Check out the trailer and see how you like it.
Get an in-depth look at the writer who's created Despereaux and the world he lives in.
What Does an Author Want?
Kate DiCamillo wants you to read, read, read.
Listen Closely, Dear Reader
If you'd like to hear The Tale of Despereaux as a bedtime story (and get the full experience of that intimate narrator), pick up the audio book and settle in for a magical three hours.
The Titular Hero
The cover of The Tale of Despereaux definitely plays up its fairy tale vibes and shows us our intrepid hero rushing to save Princess Pea.
The illustrations within The Tale of Despereaux are a total whimsical treat. This scene, which shows the moment when Princess Pea meets Despereaux, lets readers see just how tiny Despereaux is…and just how big his ears are.
Roscuro the rat looks quite different from the mice in the book, with his long narrow snout and his creepy claws.
Little Mouse on the Big Screen
The movie poster for The Tale of Despereaux puts the titular character front and center…and really emphasizes those big ears of his.