August 12, 2023
NOTE: A version of this story appears in our 2023 South Dakota Festival of Books guide, produced by South Dakota Magazine.
For 20 years, children and adults alike have found inspiration in The Tale of Despereaux, Kate DiCamillo’s story of a tiny mouse with big ears and a heart to match. DiCamillo returns to the Festival this year not only to celebrate the book’s anniversary but also its selection as the 2023 Young Readers One Book. The South Dakota Humanities Council distributed 12,000 copies to third graders this fall, and DiCamillo will meet with many of them during her visits to Rapid City and Deadwood.
SDHC celebrates its 10th annual Young Readers Festival this fall, with DiCamillo serving as the perfect headliner. Her book The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane was the very first Young Readers One Book in 2014, when she delighted book lovers of all ages during appearances in Sioux Falls and Brookings.
DiCamillo still treasures her experiences at that inaugural Young Readers Festival, including some events with up to 900 youth at one time. “You would think that was a recipe for chaos, but we all connected so powerfully,” she said. “They were just the most present and engaged kids. They gave me their hearts, and I gave them my heart in return.”
Despereaux blossomed while DiCamillo was visiting a friend and her family in St. Louis. Her first book, Because of Winn Dixie, had recently been published. “Her son was 8 years old, and he had never been that impressed with me before, but here was my name on a book and he was a huge reader,” DiCamillo says. “So he followed me everywhere I went during that visit, and toward the end he asked if he could have a word alone with me in his room.”
That’s where he shared his idea for a story about an unlikely hero with exceptionally large ears. “What happens to this hero?” DiCamillo asked. “I don’t know,” the boy replied. “That’s why I want you to write the book.”
DiCamillo developed a rich set of characters led by Despereaux Tilling, a smaller than average mouse ostracized by his friends and family for not acting like a mouse. There’s Roscuro the rat, Gregory the jailer, young Miggery Sow, the king, and Princess Pea — all residing in a castle that’s bright and luxurious above ground but dank and mysterious in the dungeon. Those two worlds collide as Despereaux seeks to escape the dark and live in the light.
The boy did not specify that the hero be a mouse, but DiCamillo thought that creature seemed to be the most unlikely hero imaginable. “People wonder why there are so many mice in children’s books, and to me it’s always been such a no-brainer,” she says. “It’s because when you’re a kid you feel small and powerless and invisible, so to take somebody small — even smaller than a normal mouse — and let them become heroic, it works for how you feel as a kid.”
That’s evident in the stories she hears. Sometimes, adults who attend her book signings sport Despereaux tattoos. One woman told her that she read the book as a third grader, and it inspired her to incorporate it into her own third grade class when she became a teacher. Another reader explained how reading The Tale of Despereaux over and over helped her deal with childhood health issues that required long hospital stays.
“When I say all of that, it sounds unbelievable,” DiCamillo says. “What a gift for me as a writer. You do it alone in your room, and then unbelievably you get to connect with people, and often it’s people that you don’t even know you’ve connected with. It’s that amazing power of books and stories.”
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