by Kay Mollica, AmeriCorps member serving on the State Street Foundation team with Higginson/Lewis K-8 School
“Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark. Begin at the beginning. Tell Gregory a story. Make some light.”
The Tale of Despereaux is an elementary-aged chapter book that perfectly straddles the paradox that is our existence in both the light and the dark. It is the story of a small and sickly mouse named Despereaux who is sent to the dungeon of the castle where his family lives tucked away in the walls for daring to use his voice and SPEAK to a HUMAN! In general Despereaux is not very “good” at being a mouse. He likes to sneak into the library and read rather than sniff for crumbs! Patches of light, music, and art easily distract him. He is attracted to big ideas like honor, bravery, chivalry, and valiance. While in the dungeon, Despereaux befriends Gregory the jailer, who has connections with other main characters within the kingdom and castle walls: Miggory Sow, Chiaroscuro the Rat, and The Princess Pea. I am reading Despereaux with my reading group students this year and I love how the book manages to be provocative and dark while still appropriate in age and content. It keeps my students engaged, laughing, thinking, and steeped in light themselves as they can look forward to being told a very good story every day. Children’s books of this caliber never cease to amaze me in the clearness of their cogency.
The book talks about grappling with identity and how others can see you in an innately poor way without your consent – like when Chiaroscuro is identified as a RAT in the castle dining hall: “Rat. In the middle of all that beauty, it immediately became clear that it was an extremely distasteful syllable. Rat. A curse, an insult, a word totally without light.” I also like how the book breaks down empathy as experienced by the Princess Pea even in the midst of (spoiler!) and elaborate heist that ends in her attempted kidnap: Reader, I am pleased to tell you that the Pea was a kind person, and perhaps more important, she was empathetic. Do you know what it means to be empathetic? I will tell you: It means that when you are being forcibly taken to a dungeon, when you have a large knife pointed at your back, when you are trying to be brave, you are still able to think for a moment of the person who is holding the knife. You are able to think: ‘Oh, poor Mig, she wants to be a princess so badly and she thinks that this is the way. Poor, poor Mig. What must it be like to want something that desperately?’ and that, reader, is empathy.”
We are practicing a social emotional learning technique at school called Second Step that breaks down empathy as experienced with the students and their peers. Empathy within the content of this story makes the word more multi-dimensional and recognizable. All that being said, any age can enjoy and marvel at how stunningly crafted The Tale of Despereaux is.