This story begins within the walls of a castle, with the birth of a mouse. A small mouse. The last mouse born to his parents and the only one of his litter to be born alive…
His ears are too big,’ said his sister Merlot. ‘Those are the biggest ears I’ve ever seen.’
‘Look,’ said a brother names Furlough, ‘his eyes are open. Pa, his eyes are open. They shouldn’t be open.’
It is true. Despereaux’s eyes should not have been open. But they were. He was staring at the sun reflecting off his mother’s mirror. The light was shining onto the ceiling in an oval of brilliance, and he was smiling up at the sight…
‘The last one,’ said the father. ‘And he’ll be dead soon. He can’t live. Not with his eyes open like that.’
But, reader, he did live.
This is his story.
Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux tells the story of a kingdom in which a protagonist makes friends with a princess, a rat with a broken heart hatches an evil plot, a queen drowns in a bowl of soup, and a mouse born with open eyes and big ears becomes a knight with a shining sword. It is, quite simply, a children’s story – a wonderous and imaginative plot that unfolds between Chapter One and happily ever after.
Much of what makes The Tale of Despereaux such a good children’s story is that it, like all good children’s stories, does not have to exist. There was no reason for Despereaux to live; he was the last and the least, nothing depended upon his life, and by all logic he should not have survived. Yet we have a story only because he did live. The story only exists because Miss DiCamillo chose to create a mouse named Despereaux and then chose to allow that mouse to live within a narrative of adventure and romance and beauty, where darkness exists but light shines on the ceiling in an oval of brilliance. It is unnecessary, an entirely gracious extravagance, and very much like life.
If I have children of my own one day, I want those children to grow up on stories. I want them to read the stories that I loved as a child; I want them to read the stories that they will discover themselves as children; and yes, I want them to read the stories that I have been writing for them ever since I was a young child. I want my children to understand that they – like Despereaux, like all of us – exist in their story most certainly by grace. I want them to see in every moment that they live and move and have their being because their Maker chose to create them – chose to write them as characters in a narrative of truth and beauty and goodness; so I will give them stories.
But how should such an unnecessary existence be spent? Despereaux’s story would not have been the same if he did not hear with his large ears a sound no mouse in the kingdom could hear – a sound so sweet he calls it honey. Despereaux hears music. The music, in turn, leads him through stairwells and castle floors all the way to the princess, and Despereaux becomes the first mouse in the kingdom to befriend a human being. Despereaux’s story would not have been the same if he did not discover with his sharp, open eyes that words are more than shapes; the hours he spends reading the castle library books that the other mice in the kingdom cannot understand allow him to see that “stories are light” and “light is precious in a world so dark.”
Do you see how Despereaux spends his unnecessary existence? He receives it and rejoices over it. In a world that seems tasteless to those around him, he finds honey; in a world that seems dark and meaningless to those around him, he finds story and therefore light. It is this delight in the discovery of reality that sets him off on his adventure.
Despereaux’s story demonstrates what all good children’s literature does, especially that which is shaped by the wonderous, the fantastic, and the imaginative: it awakens us to the wonderous, the fantastic, and the imaginative in our own lives. The unnecessity of our existence – like the unnecessity of Despereaux’s – allows us a natural delight and receptivity in our place in this narrative. I want this delight for my children; so I will give them stories.
For Despereaux, as for all of us, stories are light because they allow us to see more clearly the light in our own stories. As G.K. Chesterton writes,
“[E]ven nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.”
Literature does not drive us away from reality, but instead, draws us more deeply into reality. I want my children to understand not only that their existence is unnecessary, but that it is beautiful, filled with apples and water, with audible honey and readable light. A child who loves stories is a wonderer, born with open eyes. Delighted in the discovery of reality, I want my children to understand that life itself has set them off on an adventure; so I will give them stories.
Yet adventures and stories are never perfectly safe. There is a cost to being born with open eyes; there is a cost to being Despereaux. To live fully awake to the world is to live fully awake to all of the world – both to its beauty and grace and to its brokenness and pain. Despereaux discovers not only honey and light, but in doing so, also heartbreak and darkness. Through his adventure, he finds that his kingdom is grieving the death of its queen; in its grief, it has been forced to relinquish its prized possession, its sweet and special creation: soup. Through his adventure, he finds that his friend the princess has been kidnapped and taken to the dungeon of her own castle, held hostage by a rat with a broken heart. Through his adventure, he finds that a world that was meant to be wholly beautiful is wholly beautiful no longer.
As my children understand their lives as a story, they will recognize soon that there are rats in this story. They will know, before they are even able to articulate it, that their souls have lost a prized possession. It is the nature of life as a missing princess; it is the nature of life in a kingdom that is grieving. Yet no good storyteller leaves the princess in the dungeon or the kingdom without soup. Instead, with a needle as a sword and a red thread tied around his waist to lead him back to the light, Despereaux descends into the darkness underground. Princesses that have been exiled can return home, and do. Soup that has been lost can be found again, and is. Hearts that have been broken can be made new, and are. It comes, of course, at the end of the story; yet how else will my children understand how their own stories will end, unless they read the endings of others? As C.S. Lewis explains,
“Since it is so likely that [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise, you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.”
Stories are light, because they teach us, quite simply, that the light shines and the darkness cannot overcome it. The oval of brilliance is always brighter than the shadows around it, and it is the brilliance that we look towards with our open eyes. Born already-breaking into an already-broken world, my children will always know the dungeon in this life. I want them to know the mouse with the sewing-needle sword as well; so I will give them stories.
James Schall writes,
“If the whole of what we do – if the whole world – is merely ‘child’s play,’ as Plato intimated, it is not because there is no drama among us. Rather, it is because we are already included in a drama of infinitely greater grandeur than anything we could possibly make or even imagine by ourselves.”
If I teach my children to view all life as a children’s story, it is not because it I want them to view life as small or simple or petty – far from it. Instead, it is because I hope that the stories I give to my children, like the thread Despereaux ties around his waist to lead him back home, will be guides for them – guides to the beautiful unnecessity of their existence, guides to wonderous, fantastic, imaginative life that is theirs, guides to the light that the darkness cannot overcome, guides that they can follow home.
It is my hope that my children will be born with open eyes, that they will hear honey when the world seems silent and read once upon a time in places where the narrative and meaning seems lost to everyone else. My children will know that they live in a place where prized possessions are taken away and rats scamper through shadows plotting evil. It is my hope they will also know that they live in a place where a hero comes, small and young, to descended to the dungeon below and bring the lost princess back up to the light. It is my hope that the stories I give my children will help them understand their own lives as a story – a story that begins in Chapter One and ends in happily ever after, when the princess, finally home, sits down with the knight to share a magnificent feast – a feast in which, although I am not perfectly certain, I think it quite likely that there will be soup.
 Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux (Cambridge: Candlewick Press, 2003), 11, 13, 15.
 Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux (Cambridge: Candlewick Press, 2003), 18.
 Ibid., 81.
 Gilbert K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Garden City: Image Books, 1959), 54.
 Ibid., 111.
 C. S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” In On Stories (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1982), 59.