Here’s my new love interest: Middle Grade fiction. Of course, they’re not all as good as this one, but Kate DiCamillo‘s Tale of Despereaux (Candlewick, 2003) shows what’s possible in this kind of book.
What makes it so wonderful is, simply, the age itself. Children of about 8 to about 12 have a wonderful mix of curiosity and openness to wonder, on the one side, and an emerging sense of life’s complexity, on the other.
DiCamillo taps in to both wonderfully. On the one side, this is a story about mice and rats who speak to humans–and the humans aren’t especially surprised, either. Like the children reading the story, the girl in the story (Princess Pea) is delighted by the talking mouse, Despereaux. But she isn’t at all surprised he can talk (neither is her father). DiCamillo can follow him around the castle, to the labyrinthine dungeon and back, without wasting space explaining how mice, in this particular place, can talk, and why. No messing around with “world building.” You just take it as a story premise and move on. I love that.
By the way, you can observe a similar phenomenon with Jon Scieszka’s Time Warp series. It doesn’t waste time on the possibility of the thing–the science of it, so to speak. You accept the premise quickly, and you move on.
On the other side, DiCamillo can work on some pretty heavy themes here. She handles them well, too. These would include abandonment and betrayal by parents (“perfidy”), the threat of death (not realized), and powerful emotions like forgiveness and hatred, hope and courage, and the foolishness of love. All of these are woven into what it means to be the mouse Despereaux and the rat Roscuro, the peasant girl Miggery Sow and the Princess Pea.
I’ve read novels for adults that shy away from such heavy themes. Or at least didn’t manage to get to more than one.
One theme DiCamillo develops with a lighter touch I found especially meaningful for a child of the right age and temperament. This was the tension that can exist between what we’re like by nature and how the people we grow up around think we should be. All the main characters, except Princess Pea (who is not exactly a main character), exhibit this tension. The mouse Despereaux in particular has to defy family and cultural expectations in order to help the Princess and, just as importantly, live out the ideals he has learned from stories.
And that’s, maybe, what DiCamillo is after. Or at least, I would be. Because in reading, once upon a time, we readers and writers found ourselves. And we’d love nothing more than our own readers to discover themselves in our books. Whenever parents, or schools, or a culture, lock a child into Something She Is Not, aren’t stories one of the ways the child escapes and dreams and, in some rare instances, becomes what those parents and schools and cultures had never imagined?
I think so, anyway. And that DiCamillo was able to accomplish all this, in beautiful language, never talking down to the reader, in a novel of just over 32,000 words, makes me admire this book quite a bit.