Despereaux Tilling, an unusual rodent considered a disappointment by his mother, is the unlikely hero of the fairy tale that is this month's Al's Book Club pick. The heroic mouse goes on to fall in love with a beautiful human princess. An excerpt.
Chapter one: The last one
This story begins within the walls of a castle, with the birth of a mouse. A small mouse. The last mouse born to his parents and the only one of his litter to be born alive.
“Where are my babies?” said the exhausted mother when the ordeal was through. “Show to me my babies.”
The father mouse held the one small mouse up high. “There is only this one,” he said. “The others are dead.”
“Mon Dieu, just the one mouse baby?”
“Just the one. Will you name him?”
“All of that work for nothing,” said the mother. She sighed. “It is so sad. It is such the disappointment.”
She was a French mouse who had arrived at the castle long ago in the luggage of a visiting French diplomat. “Disappointment” was one of her favorite words. She used it often.
“Will you name him?” repeated the father.
“Will I name him? Will I name him? Of course, I will name him, but he will only die like the others. Oh, so sad. Oh, such the tragedy.”
The mouse mother held a handkerchief to her nose and then waved it in front of her face. She sniffed. “I will name him. Yes. I will name this mouse Despereaux, for all the sadness, for the many despairs in this place. Now, where is my mirror?”
Her husband handed her a small shard of mirror. The mouse mother, whose name was Antoinette, looked at her reflection and gasped aloud. “Toulèse,” she said to one of her sons, “get for me my makeup bag. My eyes are a fright.”
While Antoinette touched up her eye makeup, the mouse father put Despereaux down on a bed made of blanket scraps. The April sun, weak but determined, shone through a castle window and from there squeezed itself through a small hole in the wall and placed one golden finger on the little mouse.
The other, older mice children gathered around to stare at Despereaux.
“His ears are too big,” said his sister Merlot. “Those are the biggest ears I’ve ever seen.”
“Look,” said a brother named Furlough, “his eyes are open. Pa, his eyes are open. They shouldn’t be open.”
It is true. Despereaux’s eyes should not have been open. But they were. He was staring at the sun reflecting off his mother’s mirror. The light was shining onto the ceiling in an oval of brilliance, and he was smiling up at the sight.
“There’s something wrong with him,” said the father. “Leave him alone.”
Despereaux’s brothers and sisters stepped back, away from the new mouse.
“This is the last,” proclaimed Antoinette from her bed. “I will have no more mice babies. They are such the disappointment. They are hard on my beauty. They ruin, for me, my looks. This is the last one. No more.”
“The last one,” said the father. “And he’ll be dead soon. He can’t live. Not with his eyes open like that.” But, reader, he did live. This is his story.
Chapter two: Such a disappointment
Despereaux Tilling lived. But his existence was cause for much speculation in the mouse community.
“He’s the smallest mouse I’ve ever seen,” said his aunt Florence. “It’s ridiculous. No mouse has ever, ever been this small. Not even a Tilling.” She looked at Despereaux through narrowed eyes as if she expected him to disappear entirely. “No mouse,” she said again. “Ever.”
Despereaux, his tail wrapped around his feet, stared back at her.
“Those are some big ears he’s got, too,” observed his uncle Alfred. “They look more like donkey ears, if you ask me.”
“They are obscenely large ears,” said Aunt Florence. Despereaux wiggled his ears. His aunt Florence gasped. “They say he was born with his eyes open,” whispered Uncle Alfred. Despereaux stared hard at his uncle. “Impossible,” said Aunt Florence. “No mouse, no matter how small or obscenely large-eared, is ever born with his eyes open. It simply isn’t done.”
“His pa, Lester, says he’s not well,” said Uncle Alfred. Despereaux sneezed. He said nothing in defense of himself. How could he?
Everything his aunt and uncle said was true. He was ridiculously small. His ears were obscenely large. He had been born with his eyes open. And he was sickly. He coughed and sneezed so often that he carried a handkerchief in one paw at all times. He ran temperatures. He fainted at loud noises. Most alarming of all, he showed no interest in the things a mouse should show interest in.
He did not think constantly of food. He was not intent on tracking down every crumb. While his larger, older siblings ate, Despereaux stood with his head cocked to one side, holding very still.
“Do you hear that sweet, sweet sound?” he said. “I hear the sound of cake crumbs falling out of people’s mouths and hitting the floor,” said his brother Toulèse. “That’s what I hear.”
“No ... ,” said Despereaux. “It’s something else. It sounds like ... um ... honey.”
“You might have big ears,” said Toulèse, “but they’re not attached right to your brain. You don’t hear honey. You smell honey. When there’s honey to smell. Which there isn’t.”
“Son!” barked Despereaux’s father. “Snap to it. Get your head out of the clouds and hunt for crumbs.”
“Please,” said his mother, “look for the crumbs. Eat them to make your mama happy. You are such the skinny mouse. You are a disappointment to your mama.”
“Sorry,” said Despereaux. He lowered his head and sniffed the castle floor.
But, reader, he was not smelling. He was listening, with his big ears, to the sweet sound that no other mouse seemed to hear.
Chapter three: Once upon a time
Despereaux’s siblings tried to educate him in the ways of being a mouse. His brother Furlough took him on a tour of the castle to demonstrate the art of scurrying.
“Move side to side,” instructed Furlough, scrabbling across the waxed castle floor. “Look over your shoulder all the time, first to the right, then to the left. Don’t stop for anything.”
But Despereaux wasn’t listening to Furlough. He was staring at the light pouring in through the stained-glass windows of the castle. He stood on his hind legs and held his handkerchief over his heart and stared up, up, up into the brilliant light.
“Furlough,” he said, “what is this thing? What are all these colors? Are we in heaven?”
Excerpted from “The Tale of Despereaux.” Text copyright © 2003 Kate DiCamillo. Illustrations copyright © 2003 Timothy Basil Ering. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.