Today, let’s take a peek at Kate DiCamillo’s charming book about the adventures of a mouse, The Tale of Despereaux. One of the reasons I love this book is the way it deals with the struggle to be one’s own unique self—a struggle every child experiences.
Despereaux is born within the walls of a castle, the only one of a large litter of mice to be born alive. But his parents think something is wrong with him. His body is too small, his ears are too large, and he is born with his eyes wide open. Plus, he is not interested in looking for crumbs, like the other mice are. His French mother says, “You are such the skinny mouse. You are a disappointment to your mama.”
Despereaux’s older sister Merlot takes him to the castle library to teach him how to nibble the paper in the pages of books, and here’s what happens:
“Despereaux looked down at the book, and something remarkable happened. The marks on the pages, the ‘squiggles’ as Merlot called them, arranged themselves into shapes. The shapes arranged themselves into words, and the words spelled out a delicious and wonderful phrase: ‘Once upon a time’.
‘Once upon a time,’ whispered Despereaux.
His sister urges him to nibble the page, but he tells her he couldn’t possibly because it would ruin the story. So when Merlot leaves, Despereaux begins to read.
“Once upon a time, he said aloud, relishing the sound. And then, tracing each word with his paw, he read the story of a beautiful princess and the brave knight who serves and honours her.
“Despereaux did not know it, but he would need, very soon, to be brave himself.
“Have I mentioned that beneath the castle there was a dungeon? In the dungeon there were rats. Large rats. Mean rats.
“Despereaux was destined to meet those rats.
“Reader, you must know that an interesting fate (sometimes involving rats, sometimes not) awaits almost everyone, mouse or man, who does not conform.
I love the way that it is Despereaux’s ability to read that stirs his sense of self and leads him down a “road less traveled.” It’s a road full of challenges, of course, but it will also lead to real fulfillment.
I can’t think of a better way to sum up this theme than with the words of the poet, e. e. cummings: “To be nobody-but-yourself in a world that is trying night and day to make you everybody else, is to fight the hardest battle anyone will ever fight, and never stop fighting.”
Every young person faces that battle, and it’s not easy. So I’m thankful for stories like this one which reaffirms that it’s okay—in fact it’s a good thing—to be true to yourself.
If you haven’t read The Tale of Despereaux, check it out, and share it with the young folks in your life. It might lead to some interesting conversations about what it means to “be yourself.”