Monday, January 23, 2012

Book Nook - The Tale of Desperaux / Velveteen Rabbit

The Tale of Desperaux, written by Kate DiCamillo:

I read this book last summer and enjoyed it, but wasn't sure the Bachsters were quite ready for it.  So, I tucked it away in the "one of these days" pile and recently saw it at the library.  We were in need of a longer chapter book, so I thought we'd give it a try.

To summarize the story, Desperaux is a very small mouse who lives in a castle.  He is a little different from the other mice: he reads the books instead of nibbling on their pages, he refuses to scurry and he is especially drawn to light (light and darkness are big themes throughout the book).  One day Desperaux finds himself in the same room as the king and the Princess (whose name happens to be Pea).  He sits at the foot of the king and listens to the beautiful song he is singing.  Once discovered, he talks to the king and Princess, and finds himself falling in love with the kind Princess.  The other mice are enraged at his behavior, and the Mouse Council, including Desperaux's father, sends him to the dungeon.  The dungeon is sure death for any mouse, because there are evil, mouse-eating rats who live there.  The story also introduces us to Roscuro, a scheming rat who only wants revenge for a mean look the Princess once gave him; also, Miggery Sow, a poor servant girl who has had a rough life of losing her mother, being sold into slavery by her father and getting a clout on the ear by most people of authority.  All of these characters come together in an elaborate plot, with Desperaux taking the lead of an unlikely hero.

The story is well crafted.  I especially like the role of the narrator, who stops the action sometimes to ask the reader questions or to point out something especially noteworthy ("reader, do you know what "perfidy" means?  I have a feeling you do, based on the little scene that has just unfolded here," page 45).  The pace is quick, but not too fast, the different aspects of the story all come together in a very natural way and the ending is a satisfying one.

However, I have a 4 year old who had many nights of troubled sleep while we were reading this story.  Lights were left on at bedtime, and a little someone would ask to hop into bed with us in the middle of the night.  So, I would definitely not recommend this book to any little one under age 5 or 6.  The description of the dungeon and the blood-thirsty rats is just too much for little ones, I'm afraid.  It's really a testament to DiCamillo's excellent writing that it all seems so real.  And there are darker themes in the book that are frightening to younger kids - the dungeon, as I've mentioned, but also murder (jailer Gregory gets murdered - sorry for the spoiler), kidnapping with murderous intent, child abuse, and revenge.

So yes, this one's definitely more appropriate for older kids!  I know it sounds like an awful story (yes, I read my kids a book with a murder - albeit offstage - in it).  But it really is an excellent, rich story experience.  Perhaps that is why it won the Newbery Medal.  My 6-year-old did fine with the story, but I wouldn't read it to kids under that age, and even with older kids, plan on doing a lot of chatting and explaining about some of the more complex themes.

So, after we finished Desperaux, I felt like we could all use something a little less heavy.  When I spotted The Velveteen Rabbit on the shelves at the library, I thought that was just what we all needed.  Something sweet and innocent and simple.  Longer than a picture book and engaging for everyone.  Something that would not induce nightmares.

The Velveteen Rabbit is a classic children's story written by Margery Williams (who published her first book at age 17) and was published in 1922.  It's the story of the toys that live in the Boy's nursery.  One of the toys, the Skin Horse, explains to the Velveteen Rabbit how he can become real - if he's real in the eyes of a child, it will happen.  The Velveteen Rabbit enjoys his days with the Boy, playing outside or in the play-burrows the boy makes out of his sheets.  One day, the Boy gets very sick, and the Velveteen Rabbit is there to comfort him.  After the illness has passed, the grown ups talk of burning all the toys that the Boy slept with to be sure he won't get sick again.  It is then that the nursery magic happens and the Velveteen Rabbit can realize his dream.

It's a sweet story, but it didn't hold the attention of our 8-year-old as much as the younger ones (she started reading another book as we were all reading this one).  So, I'm on a quest to find the perfect chapter book for an 8, 6 and 4-year old.  Roald Dahl always fits the bill nicely, but we've read almost all of his books at this point!

Anyway, The Tale of Desperaux and The Velveteen Rabbit are both wonderful books.  I think they would be best enjoyed by children at an appropriate age.  As for adults, any age will do!



  1. I love Despereaux! As is often the case (like with Coraline) parents are more freaked out by the story than kids are (but 4 is perhaps a little young for this one). I consider Despereaux in the genre of "taking kids seriously" that I also place A Wrinkle in Time & the His Dark Materials series. I love that DiCamillo often does not define words like perfidy (one of my favorite quotes!), that she addresses the reader directly and that she writes difficult themes with confidence that her reader can take it. I wish more books were like this one.

    Have you read Edward Tulane? It's less dark than Despereaux. How about Island of the Aunts or the other Eva Ibbotson books?

    1. Hi shannonb! Thanks for your comments! I should have known about Desperaux & the nightmares it might give Little Dude. I had read it already, after all (I'm chalking it up to a parental "brain fart"). And I'm always on the lookout for a good book - thanks so much for the recommendations. I'll definitely check them out. Guess what I'm reading right now? Howl's Moving Castle, per your suggestion, and I love it!