The Tale of Despereaux

The Tale of Despereaux


Kate DiCamillo

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The Tale of Despereaux Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Kate DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Kate DiCamillo

DiCamillo was born in Pennsylvania, but due to her childhood chronic pneumonia, she moved to Florida with her mother and older brother when she was four years old. Her father, an orthodontist, didn’t follow the family. She studied English at the University of Florida, graduated in 1987, and moved to Minneapolis in 1994. While working at a book warehouse in Minneapolis, DiCamillo became interested in children’s fiction and published Because of Winn-Dixie, her first book, in 2000. Since then, DiCamillo has written and published prolifically, publishing other children’s novels, chapter books for beginning readers, and picture books, as well as contributing short stories for various collections. The Tale of Despereaux and DiCamillo’s novel Flora and Ulysses were honored with Newbery Medals. From 2014 to 2015, she was the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Despereaux was inspired by her best friend’s son asking her to tell a story about an unlikely hero with big ears.
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Historical Context of The Tale of Despereaux

The Tale of Despereaux takes place in an entirely fictional world, but the story draws heavily on the idealized “knight in shining armor” trope and more generally on medieval imagery. It’s worth noting that Despereaux’s conception of the knight in shining armor is rooted in 19th century Romantic ideas about what medieval knights were and how they behaved toward women—real medieval knights certainly wore armor, but they were often frightening figures known for looting cities and raping women. The vision of the chivalrous knight riding around to defend damsels in distress emerged as part of the medieval European literary tradition and was later amplified and popularized by writers and artists during the Romantic era. Soup, meanwhile, has been around for millennia—scientists have found clay vessels capable of holding soup that they’ve dated to as early as 20,000 B.C.E. (prior to developing the techniques for making watertight vessels, soup simply wasn’t possible to make). Soup’s cultural status as something healing and restorative has its roots in 16th century France. At that point, soup—which was referred to as “restaurant,” meaning “something restoring”—was sold by street vendors as the cure for exhaustion. This is where the modern definition of the word “restaurant” comes from.

Other Books Related to The Tale of Despereaux

Despereaux is one of many children’s books featuring mice as protagonists. Popular novels like Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien, Stuart Little by E. B. White, The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary, and Poppy by Avi are all about mice—often mice dealing with the same things as Despereaux does, such as being a tiny being in a huge, dangerous, and powerful world. In her 1975 book Animal Land: The Creatures of Children’s Fiction, Margaret Joan Blount suggests that mice are popular subjects in children’s literature because like kids, mice are small, can be secretive, and have comparatively less power in the world than adults or, say, owls—so it’s naturally pleasing to see such unlikely heroes triumph. Despereaux-esque unlikely heroes show up often in children’s literature, often not as mice. In books like Roald Dahl’s Matilda, Coraline by Neil Gaiman, and Lois Lowry’s The Giver Quartet, young children are able to outsmart big, powerful adults to save themselves and their communities. Another novel in which characters are inspired by medieval knights (in this case, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table) is Rodman Philbrick’s Freak the Mighty. DiCamillo has written a number of novels for young and middle-grade readers, including Because of Winn-Dixie, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, The Beatryce Prophecy, and The Magician’s Elephant. Many of her novels contain a fairy tale quality similar to Despereaux’s, or feature children navigating growing up without a mother like the Princess Pea and Miggery Sow.
Key Facts about The Tale of Despereaux
  • Full Title: The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread
  • When Written: 2002
  • Where Written: Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • When Published: 2003
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Fantasy; Fairy Tale; Children’s Novel
  • Setting: A castle in the fictional Kingdom of Dor
  • Climax: When Miggery Sow discovers that Roscuro has no intention of helping her become a princess, Princess Pea asks Mig what she wants—and Mig shouts that she wants her mother.
  • Antagonist: Chiaroscuro (Roscuro) and Botticelli Remorso—though Roscuro isn’t as clear-cut of an antagonist
  • Point of View: Third Person Omniscient

Extra Credit for The Tale of Despereaux

Honors. Kate DiCamillo is one of only six authors who have won the Newbery Award twice; The Tale of Despereaux and Flora and Ulysses won and earned her this distinction. Other authors who have won twice include Lois Lowry (for Number the Stars and The Giver), E. L. Konigsberg (for From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and The View from Saturday), and Katherine Paterson (for Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved).

Chiaroscuro. In art, chiaroscuro refers to the relationship between light and dark in a drawing, print, or painting. The chiaroscuro drawing style was developed during the Renaissance; it initially referred to drawing with charcoal and white chalk on colored paper. The artist Sandro Botticelli—for whom the rat Botticelli Remorso in the novel is named—is often held up as a prime example of a Renaissance painter who utilized chiaroscuro techniques in his work.