Kate DiCamillo has taken the world by storm with her children's books that have become instant classics. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane and The Tale of Despereaux are two of her recent novels. Children seem to love these books because they deal with emotions that children have, in a way that doesn't sugarcoat the bad and redeems with good.
Once you read Kate's books, you will realize that there is no formula to her stories. They are told about main characters of various types, some who are sympathetic, and others who are not so much. In The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, the main character is a china rabbit named Edward Tulane. Although Abilene, who owned him, loved him immensely, Edward does not love anyone except himself. Edward is described as being full of himself and disinterested in others. In The Tale of Despereaux, on the other hand, the main character is a tiny mouse named Despereaux. Although his family doesn't care much for him because he doesn't conform to what a mouse should be, the reader is left with a picture of a likeable underdog. You have to feel sorry for a mouse whose own mother would name him Despereaux.
There are many of the same themes found throughout both books. They include love and having a heart, fear, hope, despair, transformation, loss, separation, and being a disappointment to others. I think these themes are what make these books so popular with young readers. Who hasn't, at times, felt like a disappointment to others? Or felt the pain of loss or separation from loved ones? Although they are dealt with in very different ways, these are universal emotions that connect us all as humans.
Let's look at the positive themes first. Hope, love, and having a heart are among the strongest themes in both books, and yet they are presented from uniquely. Despereaux, as a mouse, falls instantly in love with the human princess. His heart swells, and he feels great joy in being around her. He feels that she loves him, too, when she smiles at him and touches his head. Despereaux's love for the Princess Pea is "wonderful, powerful, and ridiculous." This love gives him hope when he is thrown in the dungeon. He cannot imagine that love won't save him. Edward, on the other hand, is incapable of love. While Abilene loves him, he is indifferent to her. But as the story progresses, he begins to feel love for the new people that come into his life, and with that development of his heart he begins to feel hope, even when his life seems the darkest. While Despereaux has a heart from the beginning, Edward is on a journey to develop one, and learn what it means to love someone other than himself.
Loss, separation, and despair are themes that are also found in both books. For Edward, he is on a journey of loss and separation. He is first owned by Abilene, but then he falls overboard and is lost from her. He is eventually found by a fisherman who takes him home to his wife, Nellie. Nellie's daughter Lolly throws him in the dump. He is found by a dog, Lucy, and her hobo owner, Bull. He is thrown off a train where Bull and Lucy are sleeping. He is found by an old woman who makes him into a scarecrow. He is taken by a young boy named Bryce who takes him home to his sister, Sarah Ruth. When Sarah Ruth dies, Bryce takes him to Memphis, where his china head is broken. Bryce takes him to a dollmaker to have him fixed, but Bryce can't pay the dollmaker, so he puts Edward up for sale. He is eventually purchased by a woman and her daughter, and the woman turns out to be a grown-up Abilene. He only begins to feel loss and separation when he is taken from Nellie. By the time he is in the dollshop he is filled with despair, and he doesn't think he will ever love again, until Abilene buys him for her daughter. It takes the journey to develop these feelings in Edward. It is like the old saying, "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone." On the other hand, because Despereaux doesn't need to learn how to love, he feels loss and separation as soon as he is sent to the dungeon. His thoughts of the princess are what keep him from despair.
Both of these books deal with a transformation of the main character. Despereaux is a very small mouse and an unlikely hero. But his love for the princess and his quest to save her transforms him into a brave "knight in shining armor." Edward is a self-centered, aloof rabbit at the beginning of the story, but by the end of the story he wants to be loved again so desperately that he is afraid to hope for it.
These stories are written in very different styles. Edward's story is a standard third-person narrative and is presented in a serious tone. Despereaux has an omniscient narrator who addresses the reader directly. I really enjoyed this narration style as it made me feel very involved in the story. Despereaux is also written with a great deal of humor. Although both books have beautiful illustrations that add much to the story, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane has several color illustrations that I think are stunning. The depth and texture of these pictures really makes the story come alive.
Many teachers read these books out loud to the class. I had the opportunity to hear Kate speak about her writing on December 2, and she was asked why they work so well for this. She said that she reads her writing out loud, and sometimes even records it and plays it back to listen to how the words sound together. She compares her writing to music. I also wondered whether boys would enjoy The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane as much as girls do. I asked Kate and her publisher, and they said that boys do seem to enjoy the story, as long as they don't have to carry the book around with the bunny on the cover. I suggested maybe they need a boy's cover for the book.
Kate's books are very popular both with children and with teachers. At first glance, it wouldn't seem like these books would be popular with kids. These books are not like Harry Potter, or some other books that kids like. As I read these books, and researched Kate, I began to understand their popularity. The characters deal with universal emotions that allow the reader to really connect with them. Students can be encourage to make connections and explore common themes as they learn to become proficient readers. I learned a lot about use of voice and techniques of writing that seem to make these books resonate with students. Because of Kate's unique style of writing as though the words are music, the stories lend themselves to classroom use. I encourage you, as future teachers, to give Kate's books a try.