Have you ever read a book that made you feel as though you were wrapped up in a warm blanket, sipping hot cocoa, and all was good in the world? Looking at the wonderfully romantic cover of this Newbery Award winning novel, with a gallant-looking mouse grasping a sword-like needle, and running with a determined look in his eye, I was prepared for some feel-good magic. That illusion ended on page one, and my imaginary quilt was ripped way, and the hot cocoa spilled! When Despereaux the mouse is born "within the walls of a castle," the only one of his litter to survive, his mother complains, "All of that work for nothing" and labels her newborn son a "disappointment." But this is nothing compared to the mouse council who sends Despereaux to his probable death to the dungeons for talking to a human princess; the prisoner who has sold his daughter for a red cloth, a hen and a handful of cigarettes; the man who buys the girl, Miggery Sow, and beats her so badly, that her ears look like cauliflower, and the rats who find joy in making others suffer. The narrator, who often directly addresses the reader, aptly admits (on page 183),
"The story is not a pretty one. There is violence in it. And cruelty. But the stories that are not pretty have a certain value, too. I suppose. Everything, as you well know (having lived in this world long enough to have figured out a thing or two for yourself), cannot aways be sweetness and light."
And I suppose that is true, which is why I still liked the book, blanket-free though it was. There is "sweetness and light" to contrast the darkness of this tale. There is the big-eared Despereaux, who is drawn to the light and falls ridiculously in love with the Princess and unselfishly resolves to rescue her. There is the Princess Pea, whose heart, though not free of dark feelings (are any of our hearts?), feels compassion and empathy even for those who have wronged her. And there is the hope, that even though there is evil in the world, if we seek the light, we can find our own happiness, no matter how ridiculous it may be:
"The world is dark, and light is precious."