Movies with mice played a large part in my formative years, from The Rescuers to The Secret of Nimh (based on Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH) to An American Tail to The Great Mouse Detective. To this day, I find all of these movies highly watchable. When I was a wee thing, my grandma used to make up stories about a character she created called Johnny Mouse. Johnny Mouse (he must be referred to by his full name) was sly and cunning and always outsmarting cats and the people who laid out traps for him. I am telling you all this to explain that when I see a book such as The Tale of Despereaux, it is hard for me to resist.
DiCamillo has crafted a perfectly little fairytale. In the world that she created, mice can talk with humans, but they choose not to. They fear that any interaction with humans will end badly. So they scurry about from wall to wall. Despereaux, an alarmingly undersized mouse with alarmingly oversized ears, was born with his eyes wide open. His parents knew right away that something was different about Despereaux. Instead of nibbling at the bindings and pages of books in the castle library, he sat at the open books reading them, committing their stories to memory. When Despereaux breaks the cardinal rule and actually talks to the princess and her father, he is banished to the dungeon by the mouse elders. There is no assumption that he will live down there, but that he will be eaten by the rats who rule the dark places of the castle. Upon being deposited in the dungeon, Despereaux befriends the jailer and uncovers a plot to kidnap the princess.
The story is narrated beautifully, laden with many direct addresses to the reader. Such as, "Reader, do you know that there is nothing more beautiful in this world than the sound of someone you love calling your name. Nothing." The story is told from different angles and through the eyes of a few different characters that live in the castle.
While on its surface the book is about a tiny, needle-wielding mouse who saves a princess, it is also a lesson about love and forgiveness, and other complicated matters of the heart. Skip The Alchemist and read The Tale of Despereaux.