In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The empathy and the darkness of Kate DiCamillo

Dear Aunt Debbie,

You talk a good game about your picks not winning the Newbery or Caldecott Awards, but I'd like to point out that today's winners are both books we own because you sent them to Eleanor and Isabel earlier this year -- not so shabby!

As you learned early this morning, and I caught up with tonight, the Newbery went to Kate DiCamillo for Flora and Ulysses, and the Caldecott to Brian Floca for Locomotive, a gorgeous train book.

I've only recently become aware of Kate DiCamillo, who is suddenly everywhere, including serving as the current National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. She is one of those authors who, like Paul Fleischman, seems to be able to do anything: she writes picture books, early readers, and novels, in multiple genres and multiple tones.

We're big fans of Bink and Gollie, the series she writes with Allison McGhee, and Eleanor has recently devoured the Mercy Watson series of early chapter books, which focus on a family with a friendly, adventurous, none-too-smart pig as a member (though Mercy doesn't talk and seems in some ways truly pig-like, she also sleeps in a four-poster bed). Eleanor read and loved Flora and Ulysses, so much so that she recommended we buy it for a friend's birthday. I haven't read it yet, but last week Eleanor and I read DiCamillo's previous Newbery Winner, the 2003 novel The Tale of Desperaux.

The Tale of Desperaux shares some of the humor of these other books, but is far more complex and challenging in content. Reading it aloud, I kept finding myself questioning what kind of book it was, and who it was aimed at: the language in it is clear and straightforward, but the concepts and moral ambiguities it raises feel fairly adult. It's a little like a fairy tale fleshed out psychologically to the point where there can't quite be a perfect happy ending, because you've had to grapple with the actual cost of pain. I'm not sure how much of this Eleanor felt -- she reacted to the suspenseful parts, but didn't seem disturbed by the story itself. I find, though, that it's sticking with me.

The novel focuses on four characters living in the same castle: two rodents and two human girls. Each of them wants something he or she cannot have. Desperaux Tilling is a small mouse with large ears who is born wanting to interact with humans, which is against the code of mice. He loves music and stories -- when he's taken by his siblings to learn to nibble pages of books in the library, he instead discovers that the markings on the pages have meaning. Miraculously, he can read, and stories make him brave. Chiaroscuro (Roscuro) is a rat who craves light, and feels condemned to live in the castle dungeon, where the other rats are perfectly happy. Miggery Sow (Mig) is a poor girl whose father sells her as a servant after her mother's death. Her dream is to become a princess, but her reality includes a master who has given her a clout on the ear so many times that she loses her hearing. And then there's the real princess, Princess Pea, who is sweet and empathetic and has everything material she could want, but has lost her mother as well.

The dungeon plays a large part in the ways in which these four are interconnected, sometimes sweetly, sometimes violently. There is yearning, revenge, forgiveness, redemption, often in unexpected ways -- several times while reading aloud, I wasn't at all sure which way the story was going to go. Both Roscuro and Mig are twisted in unpleasant ways by their mistreatment. But DiCamillo is an empathetic writer: even her revenge-filled rat comes across as understandable and ultimately forgivable.

There's a strong narrative voice at work in the novel. Multiple times, DiCamillo addresses the reader directly, sometimes pointing out words to pay attention to or defining them for us:

As our story continues, reader, we must go backward in time to the birth of a rat, a rat named Chiaroscuro and called Roscuro, a rat born into the filth and darkness of the dungeon, several years before the mouse Desperaux was born upstairs, in the light.

Reader, do you know the definition of the word "chiaroscuro"? If you look in your dictionary, you will find that it means the arrangement of light and dark, darkness and light together. Rats do not care for light. Roscuro's parents were having a bit of fun when they named their son. Rats have a sense of humor. Rats, in fact, think that life is very funny. And they are right, reader. They are right.

This aspect of the writing, as well as the nice short chapters, make the book a good and interesting read-aloud. Eleanor loved the vocabulary (and we did pull out the dictionary when DiCamillo asked us to look up "perfidy"), and we had a number of conversations about why the characters did what they did. I'll be interested to know what she retains of it this time through, and when and whether she's moved to reread it for herself in a few years.

So I'm feeling pretty good about these wins. What did you think?

Love, Annie

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