Kate DiCamillo Is Not Afraid of the Dark

Kate DiCamillo learned the craft of storytelling by sitting on old ladies’ porches on her dead-end street in Central Florida. Her mother had moved her there to escape an abusive father and a climate that was the suspected culprit in her relentless illness.

And while DiCamillo’s Newbery Medal-winning “The Tale of Despereaux,” recently reissued in a beautiful 20th-anniversary edition, and “The Puppets of Spelhorst,” her new fairy-tale novella (the first in a projected trio), both take place far from the humid depression of a Florida cul-de-sac, their heroes share little Kate’s goal: “Despereaux wanted to read those words. Happily ever after. He needed to say them aloud … and so he was reading the story as if it were a spell and the words of it, spoken aloud, could make magic happen.”

THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread (Candlewick, 288 pp., $24.99, ages 7 to 10), illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering, tells the story of a ridiculously small mouse with “obscenely large ears” who is cast into the dungeon of a castle called Norendy by the head of the Mouse Council for the unpardonable crime of falling in love with a human princess. It is also the story of a rat with a broken heart that healed “in a crooked and lopsided way”; of a girl who was sold by her father into service as a maid, for a red tablecloth, a handful of cigarettes and a hen; and of a princess whose mother died when the brokenhearted rat fell into her soup.

From “The Tale of Despereaux.”Credit…Timothy Basil Ering

At the end of the new edition of “Despereaux” there appears a short story, “The Tapestry of Norendy,” about a girl whose parents are getting divorced and who discovers magic and succor by listening to a tale about an “impossibly small, big-eared mouse.”

In THE PUPPETS OF SPELHORST: A Norendy Tale (Candlewick, 160 pp., $17.99, ages 7 to 10), five puppets pass through the lives of one sad adult after another, hoping to find their story. Their journey is illustrated in entrancing, haunted black-and-white art by Julie Morstad. Finally, the puppets are given to a child who writes a play for them to star in — a play that ties the tales of all the forlorn adults back together in a tour de force that a lesser author would be afraid even to attempt.

Both “Despereaux”and “Spelhorst” demand a lot of their readers. DiCamillo introduces character after character, each of their stories sadder than the last, and withholds triumph and redemption until the final pages. You may find yourself asking when the sorrow will end. Or wondering, with the boy puppet in “Spelhorst,”when the story will begin. But DiCamillo knows what she’s doing. As she says in “Despereaux,” “The story is not a pretty one. There is violence in it. And cruelty. But 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 always be sweetness and light.”

When it comes to selecting stories for kids, adults forget that. No matter how many essays are published about the importance of letting children read dark stories if they wish to read them, parents complain to teachers, message boards and school boards about books that will “upset” their child — or, more often, someone else’s child.

Kids know better. Certainly the princess in “Despereaux” does: “Pea was aware suddenly of how fragile her heart was, how much darkness was inside it, fighting, always, with the light.” Children need stories that help them explore that darkness.

Apparently, puppets also need such stories: “When I have my kingdom, songs will be sung all the time,” the puppet king says. The girl puppet adds, “Songs that break your heart and heal it, too.”

Stories are songs in “Despereaux” and “Spelhorst.” They are incantations. They are meant to be spoken aloud, and heard.

Many of the best authors, from Dostoyevsky to Renée Watson, compose their books aloud. Even before birth we hear the rhythms of language. We grow up hearing them — responding to changes in tone, timbre, vocabulary. We spend most of our waking lives hearing language, whereas we spend only a few hours a day reading it. So our ears are infinitely more sensitive to language than our eyes.

Part of DiCamillo’s process for “The Puppets of Spelhorst” seems to have been reading the book aloud. (“For Ann Patchett, who listened, cleareyed, from beginning to end,” is its dedication.)

In “Despereaux,” she asks us to use our voices. “Say it, reader. Say the word ‘quest’ out loud. It is an extraordinary word, isn’t it? So small and yet so full of wonder, so full of hope.”

I recommend you say all the words of these stories aloud. They are spells, so full of wonder and hope. And they make magic happen: They will break your heart. And heal it, too.

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