Synopsis: This is the story of Despereaux Tilling, a mouse in love with music, stories, and a princess named Pea. It is also the story of Miggery Sow, a slow-witted serving girl with a simple, impossible wish. These characters are about to embark on a journey that will lead them down into a horrible dungeon, up into a glittering castle, and ultimately, into each other’s lives.
And what happens then?
[A Discussion of four of DiCamillo’s works, including The Tale of Despereaux, The Tiger Rising and Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures]
For the Writer: DiCamillo is one of my favourite authors of children’s books. Why? Each story she tells is a unique and enchanted journey. In addition, her books are a combined demonstration of multifarious writing prowess.
When you think of authors who write middle grade fiction, readers, like wine tasters, if given a kind of literary taste challenge, readers would be able to identify many writers due to a wordsmith’s distinctive style. Sommeliers, professional wine experts, can taste a wine and through a deductive process narrow the source of the wine from its general region down to its vineyard and the year it was produced. The wine’s grape type, colour and mineral content are only a sampling of the criteria, in which sommeliers are experts.
Think of the writing styles of Lemony Snicket of A Series of Unfortunate Events series, Eoin Colfer of Artemis Fowl fame, Colin Meloy of the Wildwood books, or the iconic C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. If a reader were not able to identify each of these or other authors by their respective writing styles outright, she would likely be able to at least say, “Oh, I’ve heard that before. That’s what’s her name; you know, the woman who wrote A Wrinkle in Time.” But a reader would be hard pressed, without the advantage of identifying characters and places, to attribute Kate DiCamillo books to their originator based on conformity of style. This is the hallmark of an author who is a master of her trade, a style maestro.
Each of DiCamillo’s books under discussion employ vocabulary, sentence rhythm (varying the length and type of sentence structure), tone (serious, comical, tragic, etc.), and flow (Where is the story going? What is the overall arc of the story? Is the writing creating suspense or building on a sense of loss?) to create a distinct voice for each project.
The Tale of Despereaux is unlike The Miraculous Journey, which is chalk and cheese to The Tiger Rising, which are all three a pole apart from Flora and Ulysses. Kate DiCamillo is an artist, who one year paints landscapes in watercolour, devotes another year to oil portraits, then surprises everyone by spraying Banksy style street art on our walls.
In TMJ. the author employs simple language for a simply told story that packs a complicated punch. A hapless rabbit named Edward Tulane embarks on an emotional journey in which he engages characters and situations with the potential of redemption. Odd characters indelibly imprint on Edward as he is irresistibly cast into the crucible of the world.
Far beyond the protagonist’s past experience, a protagonist with a flawed character for whom the reader empathizes at every step of the journey, the crises Edward endure are the basis of the book. It is a road trip, minus the car, minus the travel buddies. The ‘miraculous journey’ is a pilgrimage because it is the story of Edward’s preternatural transformation.
The Author quotes Stanley Kunitz at the beginning of TMJ, setting the tone:
The heart breaks and breaks and lives by breaking. It is necessary to go through dark and deeper dark and not to turn.
— from “The Testing-Tree” Truly the reader passes gently, but inexorably through the crucible of heart-break, and does not turn.
Let us read together:
That night, when Abilene asked, as she did every night, if there would be a story, Pellegrina said, “Tonight, lady, there will be a story.”
Abilene sat up in bed. “I think that Edward needs to sit here with me,” she said, “so that he can hear the story, too.”
“I think that is best,” said Pellegrina. “Yes, I think that the rabbit must hear the story.”
Abilene picked Edward up, sat him next to her in bed, and arranged the covers around him; then she said to Pellegrina, “We are ready now.”
“So,” said Pellegrina. She coughed. “And so. The story begins with a princess.”
“A beautiful princess?” Abilene asked. “A very beautiful princess.” “How beautiful?” “You must listen,” said Pellegrina. “It is all in the story.”
ONCE THERE WAS A PRINCESS WHO was very beautiful. She shone as bright as the stars on a moonless night. But what difference did it make that she was beautiful? None. No difference.”
“Why did it make no difference?” asked Abilene.
“Because,” said Pellegrina, “she was a princess who loved no one and cared nothing for love, even though there were many who loved her.”
At this point in her story, Pellegrina stopped and looked right at Edward. She stared deep into his painted-on eyes, and again, Edward felt a shiver go through him.
In this excerpt DiCamillo accomplishes much: She sets the solemn emotional tone and foreshadows the grave events to come as in the old fairy tales; She establishes the gentle rhythm in narration and dialogue, which swells and abates, but slowly deepens; and she employs frank and honest vocabulary, gradually evoking a hypnotic effect. The metronome swings wide and slow as it sweeps the reader away from the safe routine, away from the security of a comfortable and predetermined life.
Yes, it is heavy stuff for a middle grade reader, but a punch delivered as softly as a huggable well-loved plush toy.
Speaking of emotional tone, let us consider this passage from The Tale of Despereaux:
“They say he was born with his eyes open,” whispered Uncle Alfred.
Despereaux stared hard at his uncle.
“Impossible,” said Aunt Florence. “No mouse, no matter how small or obscenely large-eared, is ever born with his eyes open. It simply isn’t done.”
“His pa, Lester, says he’s not well,” said Uncle Alfred.
He said nothing in defense of himself. How could he? Everything his aunt and uncle said was true. He was ridiculously small. His ears were obscenely large. He had been born with his eyes open. And he was sickly. He coughed and sneezed so often that he carried a handkerchief in one paw at all times. He ran temperatures. He fainted at loud noises. Most alarming of all, he showed no interest in the things a mouse should show interest in.
He did not think constantly of food. He was not intent on tracking down every crumb. While his larger, older siblings ate, Despereaux stood with his head cocked to one side, holding very still.
“Do you hear that sweet, sweet sound?” he said.
“I hear the sound of cake crumbs falling out of people’s mouths and hitting the floor,” said his brother Toulèse. “That’s what I hear.”
“No . . . ,” said Despereaux. “It’s something else. It sounds like . . . um . . . honey.”
We are catapulted into a tale of terse sentence construction, dialogue that moves at a sparkling pace, and treated to sugary adjective phrases like obscenely large-eared and ridiculously small, sweet, cocked to one side, and most alarming. We are on a journey, but an odyssey of a different kind. Where Edward steps, Despereaux leaps; where the narrative flows through events in Edwards life like a deep river, in Despereaux we rush down rapids glancing off the rocks. We have been cast into the exhilarating, high paced, short and perilous life of a mouse, and the author, the master of her trade, has cracked her linguistic whip. This is a tale of high adventure featuring the unlikeliest of lion-hearted heroes.
On the topic of unlikely heroes, let us add A Tiger Rising to our discussion, which is Edward Tulane and the mouse Despereaux elevated to literary heights. A Tiger Rising is not a physical journey; it is a taut emotional passage. It is not an adventure in the castle of a princess; it is the trial and travails of the heart. The ceramic headed Edward Tulane is recast and transforms while on a globe-trotting odyssey; Despereaux, like the heroes of the old tales, must overcome insurmountable odds to protect a princess; In A Tiger Rising, the protagonist Rob Horton draws the reader into the territory of a psychological thriller.
The language in ATR is cast in a Florida backwoods drawl. The setting is the Kentucky Star Motel and its surrounding environs. The catalyst, the white-hot heat igniting this human experiment, is the proprietor of the hotel, Beauchamp, a surly landowner personifying unsympathetic cruelty and tyranny. In reach of Beauchamp a person submits, utterly, or he rebels. There is no middle road. And Rob Horton, the son a defeated man working at the motel, has come of age.
The author, as in many books of adult literary fiction – Yan Martel’s Life of Pi comes to mind, which incidentally the publisher copyrighted in the same year as The Tiger Rising – charges the story with a menacing, if unimaginable metaphor: a secret tiger in a cage. Wow!
But that is not all DiCamillo does. The Tiger Rising has many of the hallmarks of a stage play. I know; I was an actor for years. In TTR you have a stage set, which is most often restricted to a single location like in Tennessee William’s The Night of the Iguana. You have the burly oppressive antagonist as in A Streetcar Named Desire, and the foreboding of The Glass Menagerie. Like all good playwrights, DiCamillo choreographs The Tiger Rising around its metaphor and discloses movement through dialogue, tightening the suspense one line at a time. Like the Greek Tragedies The Tiger Rising even has its soothsayer, a kind of prophetess, whose mysterious presence guides the protagonist. The Tiger Rising could easily be adapted into a formidable stage play.
Here is a sample:
“Why is this place called the Kentucky Star?” Sistine asked
“Because,” said Rob. It was the shortest answer he could think of.
“Because why?” she asked.
Rob sighed. “Because Beauchamp, the man who owns it, he had a horse once, called the Kentucky Star.”
“Well,” said Sistine, “it’s a stupid name for a hotel in Florida.”
It started to rain; Sistine stood in front of him and continued to stare. She looked at the motel and then over at the blinking Kentucky Star sign, and then she looked back at him, as if it was all a math equation she was trying to make come out right in her head.
The rain made her hair stick to her scalp. It made her dress droop. Rob looked at her small pinched face and her bleeding knuckles and dark eyes, and he felt something inside of him open up. It was the same way he felt when he picked up a piece of wood and started working in it, not knowing what it would be and then watching it turn into something he recognized.
He took a breath. He opened his mouth and let the words fall out. “I know where there’s a tiger.”
In Tiger the sentences lengthen providing time for emotions to rise, linger and expand. In TMJ we do not know where Edward will journey next. In TTofD we do not know what will come of Despereaux’s quest. In Tiger we do know where the journey ends, but are reluctant to follow: the cage of the tiger. It is a literary device I describe as a moth-to-the-flame.
And now we will discuss something completely different. I have to admit when I picked up Flora and Ulysses, I thought, this one is a gimmick. Kate DiCamillo has finally sold out, I thought. She wants to capitalize on the diary books, the Dork Diaries, Diary of A Something Grade Nobody, Fairy Diaries (not out there yet, but just wait) and rake in the cash. But I must be a natural born cynic. I should have known better than to second guess Kate DiCamillo. I mean, here is a book that turns every convention on its head, or something!
The dialogue is modern-esque. The sentences are act and react embodying the economy of a comic strip, in fact, comic strips cleverly interlace the narrative, which, according to Flora’s experience of the world, morphs into a living comic strip. The protaganist’s reality is suddenly melded into a tryst of two worlds: her world, where she lives with her self-absorbed author mom; and the other world, the world of INCANDESTO where TERRIBLE THINGS CAN HAPPEN TO YOU, where THE CRIMINAL ELEMENT thrives, where, with the help of a superhero in the humble form of a poet squirrel, love must conquer! Or whatever. Flora is a cynic after all.
So how does DiCamillo’s experiment of Flora and Ulysses, The Illuminated Adventures, which combines comic strip narrative and written narrative, succeed?
Firstly, the mediums of comic strip (adeptly drawn by K. G. Campbell) and conventional narrative are not independently added simply for effect. The mediums are not parenthetical, but mingled, like a great omelette. Flora’s mind is immersed in the comic world, the world of the great hero Incandesto, which feeds her reality. Flora even projects thought or dialogue bubbles into her reality throughout the narrative, which is written as a comic strip extension with mounds of dialogue pumped up with action.
Here is a link to a brief taste of the story offered on the author’s website:
Secondly, the story is layered. And please, not like Shrek’s onion, which is the same teary eyed stuff all the way to the core. Under all the splash, the expletives, the hyper-surreal action, is the tender story of a wounded girl coming to terms with loss. Where various events and relationships rescue Edward from a self-absorbed indifference, serendipitous, if not outright providential relationships forming around a down-on-his-luck, though indomitable squirrel, heal Flora. These are children’s books with life lessons suitable for any age.
Do yourself a favour and read these four books one after the other, jotting down reminders along the way. Note the changes in vocabulary, sentence structure and pacing, how, with these tools the author creates the tone of the story.
Kate DiCamillo is to middle-grade fiction, what Julia Child is to mastering the art of French cooking. Bon Appetit!