JEFFREY BROWN: "The world is dark and light is precious. Come closer, dear reader. You must trust me. I am telling you a story."
So begins "The Tale of Despereaux," a 270-page fable for children with illustrations by Timothy Basil Ering, that tells of a big-eared little mouse named Despereaux who falls hard for a princess, escapes some nasty rats in a dark dungeon, and goes on a dangerous and ultimately successful quest to save his love. "The Tale of Despereaux" is the 2004 winner of the Newberry Medal, given by the American Library Association for "the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children."
The author is 39-year-old Kate DiCamillo, who grew up in Florida and now lives in Minneapolis. "Despereaux" is her third novel for children. Kate DiCamillo, congratulations, and welcome.
KATE DICAMILLO: Thank you, and thank you.
JEFFREY BROWN: So this is the adventures of a very unlikely hero: a mouse who falls in love with a princess. He loves music, he loves tales of knights. What made you write this story?
KATE DICAMILLO: My best friend's son, about three years ago -- he was 8 years old -- asked me for the story of an unlikely hero. And I told him at the time that I didn't do stories on command. And he said, "But this is a story that you'll want to tell. It's about this unlikely hero, and he's got," he said, "exceptionally large ears." He's a very precocious kid. And I said, "That's all nice, but I don't think that I'm the one to do it." And he said, "It's a wonderful story. You have to write it down." And I said, "What happens in the story?" And he said, "I don't know, but when you write it down, then we'll find out." And so...
JEFFREY BROWN: That's your job, huh?
KATE DICAMILLO: Yeah, that's my job. He's got a clear division of labor there, you know. And so, I still didn't think I could do anything with it, but when I got back home, the phrase "unlikely hero" just kind of stuck in my head. And I started doodling, and it's not a big leap from an unlikely hero with large ears to get to a mouse.
JEFFREY BROWN: What is it about mice and children's literature? My own son is reading "The Red Wall" series -- so many mice characters. So, why?
KATE DICAMILLO: Why? I think that children can readily identify with something so small and defenseless and that the rest of the world considers unimportant. I think that kids feel powerless, and what's more powerless than a mouse? And so, I think kids kind of exist on the outside of the adult world. And so, I think they can identify with rodents. I don't know, I can.
JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, in addition to all the kind of light that you have in this story, there's a lot of darkness.
KATE DICAMILLO: There is.
JEFFREY BROWN: There are parents who aren't all that nice. There are kids left alone, even beaten.
KATE DICAMILLO: Right.
JEFFREY BROWN: There's the prison.
KATE DICAMILLO: Right, there's a lot of darkness in the world. And I think it's a disservice to think that kids don't know that the world is full of all kinds of dangers and dark things. They know. And for adults to tell them that the world is only sweetness and light when the kids can see something entirely different in front of them is -- that's kind of ridiculous. So I want stories -- I wanted stories, as a kid, that dealt with the world the way I saw it, which was tragic and wonderful, light and dark.
JEFFREY BROWN: A balance of the two?
KATE DICAMILLO: Yeah.
JEFFREY BROWN: I read that the author you were reading at the time or who most influenced you for this book was Charles Dickens?
KATE DICAMILLO: I read Dickens the whole time I was working on this. I went back and read all of my favorites -- "A Tale of Two Cities," in particular. Dickens has a wonderful saying: "Make them laugh, make them cry, but most of all, make them wait."
JEFFREY BROWN: "Make them wait" means?
KATE DICAMILLO: Make them wait: You want them to keep on reading, and you want them to be on the edge of their seats. And so, I went back for my own pleasure, and, also, to figure out how he did that. And so, that was -- the book is very much like a fairy tale, but it owes a lot, I think, to all the Dickens that I was reading at the time, too.
JEFFREY BROWN: One of the techniques that you use is to speak directly to the reader.
KATE DICAMILLO: A very old technique.
JEFFREY BROWN: The narrator says, "Reader, listen to me now," or, "Let me tell you," or, "Have you ever thought about this, reader?" Why do that?
KATE DICAMILLO: Why do that? I don't know. You're overestimating me if you think that I'm doing things consciously, because I'm not. I'm just trying to get the story down on paper. I never know what I'm doing. But I think, in retrospect, I can say that because it was such a different kind of story for me to tell. I was considered a southern storyteller, and here I am in a totally different world with a totally different kind of story. I think that that narrator popped up because I was talking myself through the telling of the tale. I was afraid in the telling, and the narrator, this all-knowing voice, calmed me to have it on the paper, and I think that's why it showed it.
JEFFREY BROWN: Why don't you read a little bit, so we can get the flavor. This is when the mouse Despereaux meets the princess.
KATE DICAMILLO: Yes, a pivotal moment in the book. I'm going to read it to you, Jeffrey. Listen up, okay?
"The Princess Pea looked down at Despereaux. She smiled at him. And while her father played another song, a song about the deep purple falling over sleepy garden walls, the princess reached out and touched the top of the mouse's head.
"Despereaux stared up at her in wonder. The Pea, he decided, looked just like the picture of the fair maiden in the book in the library. The princess smiled at Despereaux again, and this time, Despereaux smiled back. And then, something incredible happened. The mouse fell in love.
"Reader, you may ask this question. In fact, you must ask this question. Is it ridiculous for a very small, sickly, big-eared mouse to fall in love with a beautiful human princess named Pea? The answer is, yes, of course it's ridiculous. Love is ridiculous. But love is also wonderful and powerful. And Despereaux's love for the Princess Pea would prove in time to be all of these things: Powerful, wonderful, and ridiculous."
JEFFREY BROWN: Powerful, wonderful, ridiculous. And then, reader, read on to find out what happens.
KATE DICAMILLO: Yeah, yeah, please do, yeah. I hope that you do.
JEFFREY BROWN: Something that I wonder about, because I see my own children changing so quickly year to year.
KATE DICAMILLO: Yeah.
JEFFREY BROWN: An 8-year-old is so different from a 10-year-old, so different from a 12-year-old. When you're writing for children, how do you pitch it? To what age? Who's the reader you're writing for?
KATE DICAMILLO: I don't pitch it. I just -- the reader that I'm writing for is me. And so, I tell the story that I need to tell, and, hopefully, that's for the marketing department to say who I've written it for. I just tell the story that I'm supposed to tell. I couldn't possibly sit down and write to somebody, because that would be like trying to write to the market, and you can't do that. I can only tell whatever it is that I'm given to tell, and then other people will make the decision about who it's for, I guess.
JEFFREY BROWN: But you've written three books now for young readers and they've all been quite successful.
KATE DICAMILLO: Good fortune.
JEFFREY BROWN: Is there a key, though, that you've come up with for how to reach young people?
KATE DICAMILLO: I put my heart on the page when I tell them the story. That's the only thing I know how to do. I don't know if that's the key, but that's what I do. That's what I hope to keep on doing.
JEFFREY BROWN: Okay, "The Tale of Despereaux," Kate DiCamillo. Again, congratulations.
KATE DICAMILLO: Thank you. Thanks for having me.