The Tale of Despereaux Literary Criticism and Significance - Essay

Kate DiCamillo

Literary Criticism and Significance

DiCamillo is the author of Because of Winn-Dixie (a Newbery Honor book), The Tiger Rising (a National Book Award finalist), and The Tale of Despereaux (winner of the 2004 Newbery Medal). The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane was published by Candlewick Press in 2006 and is the winner of the Boston Globe Horn Book Award. She has recently completed a series of early chapter books about a pig named Mercy Watson.

The theme of light (goodness) seems to be ever-present in DiCamillo's thoughts. The Tale of Despereaux begins with an introductory statement before Book the First: "The world is dark, and light is precious. Come closer, dear reader. You must trust me. I am telling you a story." This is what DiCamillo loves to do.  "I think of myself as an enormously lucky person. I get to tell stories for a living," she posts on her author's website.   

The Tale of Despereaux is a fairy tale, as the narrator is as much a character in the story as the protagonist and antagonist. This tale has archetypal characters with which children easily identify, and animals that take on human characteristics and language. More than just a tale for children, Despereaux is as much a lesson for adults: be slow to judge others who are different from ourselves, and seek to embrace new ways of thinking rather than be threatened by them.

The reviews of Despereaux have been overwhelmingly positive, with some criticism of DiCamillo's use of the third-person omniscient observer who interacts with the reader using "a condescending tone" and is accused by one reviewer of "conceit." Other criticisms include the "lightness" with which Mig's abuse was portrayed. One reviewer even believes the Newbery committee that awarded the prize to DiCamillo should be "scolded" for celebrating this "insulting portrayal of an at-risk child." Mig's character is portrayed as lazy, fat, and dim-witted, but it could be so in order to portray the character of Roscuro as pure, unmitigated evil for manipulating such a vulnerable, sad child.

Whether a reader agrees with some that the ending could be "tidied up a bit," or with others who seem pleased that all "lived happily ever after," DiCamillo has earned her place among those writers who keenly observe and eloquently describe the ideas of goodness and evil to children.