The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo

ImageI really wanted to love this book, and I think I might have if I had read it when I was younger, or even if my children’s lit professor hadn’t pointed out a problematic aspect of the book before I read it.  But she did, and that was all I could see as I read it.

Namely, Miggory Sow and her “terrible longing” to be a princess.  Why is her longing so terrible?  Because she is unintelligent, overweight, half-deaf (due to abuse), and poor?  School Library Journal describes her as “a peasant girl so dim that she believes she can become a princess.”  You mean like Cinderella?  Or are only beautiful intelligent servants allowed to want to be princesses?  Perhaps DiCamillo’s intent was to highlight some of the problems in traditional fairy tales with supporting characters, such as Gregory Maguire looking at Cinderella’s stepsisters or the Wicked Witch of the West, but he made those characters sympathetic.  Miggory Sow is ridiculed not only by the other characters in the story, but also by the story itself.  And the ending, with her father (who sold her for a hen, a tablecloth, and some cigarettes) now treating her “like a princess” and she’s, what, too dumb to know the difference?

Further highlighting this problem, I think, is the treatment of Roscuro, most of whose problem stems from the fact that he is a rat.  If he were a better “class” of being, his wants would not seem ridiculous, and therefore harmful.  What a stupid rat, craving the light.  Despereaux loving Princess Pea is at least equally if not more ridiculous, but because mice are less objectionable than rats, his longing is inspiring and charming.

Despereaux’s love of Princess Pea is charming and I rather like Pea herself, and I wish we had seen more of her.

The book seems to me to have a deterministic view of the world, which, while like classic fairy tales, is strange and unpleasant in a modern take on them.  The moral of this story seems to me to be “you can’t escape the circumstances of your birth,” which is not something we usually try to tell kids.  I understand those in my class who loved it and rushed to its defense.  I felt the same when our professor pointed out the flaws in the Little House books.  But affection does not mean something is immune to criticism, and I found this book very problematic.

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