Backwards Hound Book Reviews


My name is Sharon. I'm a middle school librarian in a small school district west of Houston, Texas. The purpose of this blog is to post book reviews for Literature for Children and Young Adults, Texas Woman's University Library and Information Studies class.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Review of The First Part Last by Angela Johnson

1. Bibliography
Johnson, Angela. 2003. The First Part Last. New York: Simon Pulse. ISBN 0-689-84923-0 (pbk).

2. Summary
The story is told by Bobby in alternative chapters of “Now” and “Then” across four Parts. In the first chapter (a “Now”) we find out that Bobby has an eleven-day-old daughter named Feather. In “Then” of Part I, his girlfriend Nia announces that she’s pregnant on the day that Bobby turns 16. We meet the parents of both teens.

Bobby lives on the Upper West Side of New York City with his mother (Mary), a professional photographer. Bobby has two brothers, both grown. We only meet Paul, who lives in Heaven, Ohio. Bobby and Mary live in an upper floor apartment (flat) decorated with overstuffed pillows, Moroccan rugs, Jacob Lawrence prints, and black and white photos of the three boys in Africa, Malaysia, Spain, and Venezuela on “every table, shelf, or furniture surface there is in the whole place….Color and sound was what my parents were all about.” (p. 19) Their flat has at least two-bedrooms.

Mary is divorced from restaurant owner Fred, now living in Brooklyn. Fred cooks cheesy fries and ribs (Bobby’s favorites) for his birthday and cries when he learns his son is an unwed father. Nia Wilkins lives with her parents in a loft in Chelsea. “Everything is straight lines and post-modern sculpture backlit. Stark white and so neat and clean you could probably make soup in the toilet.” (p. 18)

In “Then” of Part II, Bobby tells his friends about the pregnancy and goes with Nia for her first visit to an obstetrician. Coco Fernandez (p. 24), a fiddler in a bluegrass band (p. 35), lives downstairs from Mary. Bobby’s two best friends are J. L. and K-Boy. Bobby pulls a prank with J. L. (who knows how to quiet a crying baby). The serious K-Boy is over six feet tall and a beautiful mahogany color, but doesn’t date.

In “Then” of Part III, Nia and Bobby hang out with their friends, a day at Central Park and a party. Nia’s parents are considering sending her to her grandmother in Georgia because her blood pressure is too high (p. 79). Meantime, in the “Now” chapters of Parts I through III, we see Bobby going through sleepless nights, trying to stay awake during Brit Lit class, drawing Nia and tagging a wall, and going through a twenty-four hour fever with Feather.

In “Then” of Part IV, Nia is in her eighth month. She, Bobby, and all four parents talk to counselors about giving their baby up for adoption. Both teens and Fred cry, but they decide on adoption. The next chapter is Bobby singing television commercials to their baby, but the following chapter is entitled “Nia.” This is the only time we hear Nia’s voice; the entire chapter (two pages) is written in italics.

The last “Then” chapter is about Bobby going to the emergency room, hearing that Nia is in an irreversible vegetative state (p. 123), and seeing Feather for the first time. The book ends with Bobby saying goodbye to the vegetative Nia, and taking Feather to Heaven, Ohio, because he believes it to be a better place to raise a child. As Bobby said in the first chapter, “Things have to change.” (p. 4)

3. Critical Analysis
No doubt that this is realistic fiction. Each character is well drawn; we recognize people like them. In the first page, Bobby tells us that his mother’s reaction to his fitful sleeping was to sit on his bedroom floor and play his Game Boy. “My mom says that I didn’t sleep through the night until I was eight years old. It didn’t make any difference to her ‘cause she was up too, listening to the city.” He never calls her cold or his father weak even though Fred only has two functions—cooking and crying. As with all good fiction, the reader is left to discover the character of Bobby’s parents. The race of the main characters is only subtly revealed, mostly by comments about hair or K-Boy’s complexion.

Bobby doesn’t blame anyone; in fact, he doesn’t even explain how Nia got pregnant. The mom of his handsome friend K-Boy went into denial when she found a condom under his bed. Mary provided such a full basket of condoms that Bobby supplied all his friends! Doesn’t each of us know mothers at both these extremes, too?

Bobby’s two male friends’ reaction to the pregnancy was that Bobby was stupid (careless), though they continue to hang with both Bobby and Nia. In the Central Park “fairy tale” chapter, all three boys run around finding food to satisfy the cravings of the ever-enlarging Nia. The very unevenness of responses (from fairy tale to the classroom prank to tagging the wall to try to make sense of it all) rings true to the confusion of being sixteen under the best of circumstances.

The adults do their job, either trying to avoid teen pregnancy or supporting the teens’ decisions. Mary the mother, Jackie the babysitter, and Coco the neighbor help Bobby when he needs a few hours break. Doctors, teachers, and counselors are all realistic. How can they help? They did their jobs to educate; no one but the teen parents can respond to creating a baby. As much as Bobby would like to run away from the problem, it’s his baby—literally and figuratively.

Until the “Nia” chapter, we only see Nia through Bobby’s eyes. We see her as scared, cranky, and hungry. I reacted very emotionally to that chapter. At five, the diminutive Nia wanted to be a firefighter. At ten, she wanted to be a balloonist. By this time we know that she isn’t feeling high because she’s on drugs. “I guess this is what it must feel like to be dying. All I want to do is lie here and sleep, even though I see the blood …it was just a minute ago Bobby was singing a shampoo commercial, but he’s gone now. But that’s okay because all I want to do is fly.” (p. 116)

What about that title? In the first page, just after recalling how his mom sat on the floor of his bedroom when he couldn’t sleep through the night, Bobby says, “I get it now. I really get it.” Feather, in just her first few days of life, is also having trouble sleeping. I think this is where we understand what Bobby meant when he said (p. 4) “Thing have to change.” He considers doing with his daughter what his mother did with him for the first eight years of his life, but doesn’t.

On page 129, Bobby is glad he’s living with Fred because “he puts the covers over me at night and kisses Feather all the time before he leaves the room.” Fred asks what he’s thinking. Bobby says “I jump ‘cause I think it’s the first time my dad has ever asked me this question.” Back on page 4, Bobby says that if “the world were really right, humans would live life backward and do the first part last…everybody could end their life on their momma or daddy’s stomach in a warm room, waiting for the soft morning light.”

You have to read this book more than once or at least read it through and then start it over. When you do, you will find that, without one word of anger, Bobby has told us strongly, clearly what was wrong with the way he was brought up. On pages 129-132, Bobby says he has nightmares about leaving Feather on the subway and being unable to get back to her fast enough. Bobby gives up the city he’s always loved so much for a town his brother says is a good place to raise kids. “I can tell you how it is to feel as brand new as my daughter even though I don’t know what comes next in this place called Heaven.” (And I dare you to keep from crying!)

4. Book Reviews
Powell’s quotes this review from Publishers Weekly "Each nuanced chapter feels like a poem in its economy and imagery; yet the characters...emerge fully formed." gives this review: “‘This little thing with the perfect face and hands doing nothing but counting on me. And me wanting nothing else but to run crying into my own mom's room and have her do the whole thing. It's not going to happen.’ Bobby is your classic urban teenaged boy—impulsive, eager, restless. On his sixteenth birthday he gets some news from his girlfriend Nia that changes his life forever. … Suddenly things like school and house parties and hanging with friends no longer seem important as they're replaced by visits to Nia's obstetrician and a social worker who says that the only way for Nia and Bobby to lead a normal life is to put their baby up for adoption.

With powerful language and keen insight, Johnson looks at the male side of teen pregnancy as she delves into one young man's struggle to figure out what ‘the right thing’ is and then to do it. No matter what the cost.”

Miranda Doyle, San Francisco Public Library, writes for School Library Journal, “Grade 8 Up-Brief, poetic, and absolutely riveting, this gem of a novel tells the story of a young father struggling to raise an infant. Bobby, 16, is a sensitive and intelligent narrator. His parents are supportive but refuse to take over the child-care duties, so he struggles to balance parenting, school, and friends who don't comprehend his new role. Alternate chapters go back to the story of Bobby's relationship with his girlfriend Nia and how parents and friends reacted to the news of her pregnancy. Bobby's parents are well-developed characters, Nia's upper-class family somewhat less so.

Flashbacks lead to the revelation in the final chapters that Nia is in an irreversible coma caused by eclampsia. This twist, which explains why Bobby is raising Feather on his own against the advice of both families, seems melodramatic. So does a chapter in which Bobby snaps from the pressure and spends an entire day spray painting a picture on a brick wall, only to be arrested for vandalism. However, any flaws in the plot are overshadowed by the beautiful writing. Scenes in which Bobby expresses his love for his daughter are breathtaking. Teens who enjoyed Margaret Bechard's Hanging on to Max (Millbrook, 2002) will love this book, too, despite very different conclusions. The attractive cover photo of a young black man cradling an infant will attract readers.”

N.E.M. of AudioFile says, “Rarely do we see teen pregnancy from the father's perspective. Narrator Khalipa Oldjohn gives realistic insight into the consequences of unexpected parenthood on one teenaged father. Alternating between "then," when Nia told him on his sixteenth birthday that he was going to be a father, and "now," as he struggles to raise his daughter alone, we witness Bobby coming to grips with responsibility as he struggles to do the right thing. The back-and-forth between past and present requires close attention to the narration to understand why Bobby gave up the adoption option in favor of fatherhood.”

Hazel Rochman comments to Booklist, “Gr. 6-12. Bobby, the teenage artist and single-parent dad in Johnson's Coretta Scott King Award winner, Heaven (1998), tells his story here. At 16, he's scared to be raising his baby, Feather, but he's totally devoted to caring for her, even as she keeps him up all night, and he knows that his college plans are on hold. In short chapters alternating between 'now' and 'then,' he talks about the baby that now fills his life, and he remembers the pregnancy of his beloved girlfriend, Nia. Yes, the teens' parents were right. The couple should have used birth control; adoption could have meant freedom. But when Nia suffers irreversible postpartum brain damage, Bobby takes their newborn baby home.

There's no romanticizing. The exhaustion is real, and Bobby gets in trouble with the police and nearly messes up everything. But from the first page, readers feel the physical reality of Bobby's new world: what it's like to hold Feather on his stomach, smell her skin, touch her clenched fists, feel her shiver, and kiss the top of her curly head. Johnson makes poetry with the simplest words in short, spare sentences that teens will read again and again. The great cover photo shows the strong African American teen holding his tiny baby in his arms.”

Norah Piehl at pens, “We've all read plenty of stories about teen moms. In most of these tales, the moms are raising their babies by themselves because the dads are irresponsible, uninvolved, or just plain absent. Aren't there any good teenage dads out there?

In The First Part Last, the story of a teen father's growing love for his baby daughter, Angela Johnson turns the tables as she revisits a character from her award-winning novel, Heaven. Bobby is an ambitious young man. An aspiring artist with talented parents, he is poised to graduate early from high school. But when his girlfriend Nia surprises him on his sixteenth birthday with the news of her pregnancy, Bobby's whole world turns upside down.

This brief novel alternates chapters between ‘then’ and ‘now. The ‘then’ is the story of Nia's pregnancy, as Bobby and Nia struggle to decide whether to raise their child or cave to parental pressure and give her up for adoption. The ‘now’ is Bobby's own struggle to do the right thing for his infant daughter Feather, as a tragedy surrounding her birth has left him to care for her alone. Bobby is lucky to have a good support system, including his mother and father, his buddies, and his caring older brother. All along, Bobby's voice, which narrates the story, wavers between great love for his daughter and panic at his situation, but the emotional heart of the story never falters.

In the end, the portrayal of Bobby's relationship with his daughter is a positive one, although some critical readers might get the impression that Johnson is providing the wrong kind of role model. Not to worry. Although she does depict Bobby as a genuinely caring father, she also provides a grim picture of the not-so-rosy realities of teen parenthood, as Bobby copes with daycare dilemmas and his own insecurities: ‘This little thing with the perfect face and hands doing nothing but counting on me. And me wanting nothing else but to run crying into my own mom's room and have her do the whole thing.’

If this novel has one fault, it is that Bobby seems so wrapped up in his daughter that he doesn't take time to dwell on his grief over Nia's fate. Bobby is a caring person who seemed to truly love his girlfriend (even heading halfway across Manhattan to satisfy her pregnancy cravings), so his lack of reflection on the loss of this relationship doesn't ring true. Overall, though, The First Part Last offers an all too-rare portrayal of a caring, nurturing young man, and it should be treasured as a result.”

Matt Warner provides the Barnes & Noble review. “Author Angela Johnson follows up her Coretta Scott King Award–winning novel, Heaven, with this absorbing prequel about a single teen struggling to accept his new paternal role.

In chapters that flash between Bobby's relationship with Nia leading up to Feather's birth (entitled ‘then’) and his life now that he's a father on his own (‘now’), Johnson paints an honest, vivid portrait of a man straddling the line between childhood and adulthood. Throughout the book, Bobby fights his own sleep deprivation and desire to hand off Feather to someone else for caretaking, and in one tense episode, he takes off to go spray-painting while his daughter is looked after by a neighbor. Chapter by chapter the events surrounding Bobby's situation become clearer, and after the narrative reaches a pivotal chapter (called ‘Nia’) that marks Bobby's transformation into single parenthood, the true surprise comes near the end, when we learn what has happened to Feather's mom that eventually spurs Bobby to move to Heaven, Ohio.

In a powerful, spare read that will grip you on several levels, Johnson delivers a worthy continuation of Heaven. The characters' relationship dynamics -- Bobby with Nia, his parents, and Feather -- are deep yet subtle, while the book's main character is one not often found in young adult literature. The First Part Last is an original read that will stir you to the core.”

Barnes and Noble provide these reviews. From Publishers Weekly, “A 16-year-old tells the story of how he became a single dad. … The author skillfully relates the hope in the midst of pain. Ages 12-up.”

Alicia Dodson writes for Children's Literature, “Narrated in first-person point of view from the perspective of Bobby, a young, black male, this adolescent novel depicts life before and after having a child. By showing the tremendous responsibility that accompanies teenage parenthood, Johnson attempts to compel teenagers to evaluate the ramifications of premarital sex and pregnancy. Because most stories are written from the perspective of the teenage mother, the author presents her story in a unique way by writing from the viewpoint of a teenage father. The cover of the novel depicts a young African-American male holding an infant, which foreshadows the content of the novel.

Stylistically, by titling the chapters consistently ‘now’ and ‘then,’ except for one chapter is titled ‘Nia’ and the final chapter titled ‘heaven,’ Johnson compels the reader to examine closely the changes that occur in Bobby's life. The title as well the book's division into four parts help emphasize the tremendous impact that Feather, Bobby's baby daughter, has on the young protagonist. By setting the book in New York, Angela Johnson helps debunk many common stereotypes. The entire novel attempts to teach about life, growth, and maturity. Johnson does a good job of showing the impact that having a child can have on life. … Ages 12 up.”

VOYA - Teens' Top Ten nominator, age 13 says, “I'm really glad that Johnson wrote this prequel to Heaven. Bobby was a character that everyone wanted to know more about. This well-written book is not like anything that I've ever read before. It goes fast and has realistic fiction, romance, and suspense all in one. Most teen pregnancy books are about what the girl goes through, but this one is written from a different, exciting angle. Both girls and boys can read it. VOYA Codes: 5Q 4P J S (Hard to imagine it being any better written; Broad general YA appeal; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12).”

By Claire Rosser, “To quote from the review of the hardcover in KLIATT, May 2003: On the cover of this book is an appealing photograph of a young black man with a tiny infant. This picture introduces the novel to the YA reader—here is the story of a teenage father, loving his little daughter. How did this happen?

Angela Johnson tells us the story through the narrative of the father, Bobby, in a series of vignettes ‘then’ and ‘now.’ For Johnson's readers, there is even a connection to her previous novel, Heaven, winner of the Coretta Scott King Award. There is believable language, with occasional swearing and some references to Bobby's sexual experiences with Nia, the baby's mother.

Bobby is an urban teenager from a middle-class family, with parents who truly care about him and his baby. Stress over the baby's arrival, however, causes the parents' separation, and this, of course, doesn't help Bobby cope. Bobby and Nia had planned to give the baby up for adoption, but then tragedy strikes Nia, and everyone's future is changed. Bobby is a loving father who adores his baby even though it seems impossible to take good care of her, go to school and prepare for college, and stay in touch with his good friends.

Johnson has a way of getting to her readers' emotions with few words, creating characters we really care about. Her young people are thoughtful, conscientious, and loving—certainly with failings, but trying to do better. (An ALA Best Book for YAs and winner of the Coretta Scott King Award.) KLIATT Codes: JS*—Exceptional book, recommended for junior and senior high school students… Ages 12 to 18.”

Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley Public Library, CA reviews for School Library Journal, “Gr 7 Up-Angela Johnson's Printz Award-winning novel … is perfectly suited to the audiobook medium, and Khalipa Oldjohn narrates this first person tale with poignant authenticity of tone and pacing.

At 16, Bobby struggles to be a father to his newborn daughter while keeping up with school, maintaining his boyhood friendships, and trying to live up to his parents' expectations. Told in alternating passages of ‘Now’ and ‘Then,’ the back-story that has brought Bobby to this point falls steadily but deliberately into place, with the revelation of why Bobby is a single father arriving only near the very end.

In spite of its brevity, the story is complex and satisfying. Bobby is both boy and man, responsible and overwhelmed, near panic and able to plan an intelligent and loving future for Feather, the daughter he adores and nurtures. In audio format, this story can readily be shared in just a class period or two and will grab listeners immediately, making it an ideal subject for class discussion. It will also be instantly popular for leisure reading outside of school.”

5. Connections customers who bought this item also bought Monster by Walter Dean Myers. The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler, Tears Of A Tiger by Sharon M. Draper, How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, and Cut by Patricia Mccormick. Barnes and Nobel customers who bought The First Part Last also bought Heaven by Angela Johnson, John by Jude Palencar, Forged By Fire by Sharon Mills Draper, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, Tears of a Tiger by Sharon Mills Draper, and Darkness before Dawn by Sharon M. Draper.

This lesson comes from

Pre-reading: How do you think your life would change as a teenager if you suddenly had the responsibility of an infant? Make a schedule of your life as it is now (look at your day planner) and then make a new one based on a life with baby.

Knowledge: Describe how Bobby and Nia’s parents react to the news of her pregnancy. How would yours? Find a quote that most reveals who Bobby is as a person. Explain why you picked it.

Comprehension: Find three examples that show what kind of father Bobby is to Feather. What do you think is the most difficult thing for Bobby? Why? (Answer this question after a few chapters, answer it again at the end of the novel and see if the answer changes)

Application: Predict what happens to this family ten years into the future. Explain why. Write ten questions you would ask Bobby, Mary, and Nia if you could.

Analyze: On page 35 Bobby says, “… which pisses her off and makes her scream, and then I look around my room and miss me.” Explain what he means. Angela Johnson tells the story in a non-linear fashion. Why, do you think, she chose this literary device to reveal the story?

Synthesize: How would you cope under the extraordinary circumstances that Bobby finds himself? Would you make the same choices?

Evaluation: If Bobby had Nia’s help raising Feather would he be a different father? What makes you think so? Do you agree with Mary and Fred’s approach to grandparenthood? Why or why not?

Multiple Intelligence Projects for The First Part Last by Angela Johnson

Verbal/ Linguistic: Write at least five letters to Nia explaining what is happening with both Bobby and Feather. Be specific! Or study the spare, lyrical writing of Angela Johnson and try to write one scene of a story with a similar quality and the same economy of words.

Logical/ Mathematical: Find the most recent statistics that you can about teen pregnancy in America. Create at least one graph explaining the results you discovered.

Visual/ Spatial: Create a piece of art that you feel represents Bobby’s emotions throughout the novel. Think about form, color and line as you create your work. Explain your art in a brief, but illuminating paragraph.

Body/Kinesthetic: In small groups, act out scenes from the novel. Or write the dialogue and act out the scenes that are left off camera (like what Nia says when she meets Bobby with a balloon on his birthday).

Musical/ Rhythmic: Either create an original piece of music yourself to accompany the story or, find at least three songs that you think belong on the soundtrack of the movie version of this book. Explain why you chose these songs (and include a copy of the lyrics) in a brief journal.

Interpersonal: Cooperative Learning Project: In groups of no more than three explore and research one aspect of teen pregnancy (or choose one of your own):

How sex education affects pregnancy rates

Social implications of teen pregnancy on communities

Long-term effects for the mother (and/or father) for future success

Long term success for the infant in health and education

The availability of birth control and other services on pregnancy rates

Which children are most at risk for teen pregnancy


Foster care system

Teen shelters

Outstanding programs for young mothers and fathers

Abstinence programs

Then, create a website (or pamphlet) sharing your compilation of facts with the public. Invite the public and/or other teens in a discussion via a message board about it.

Intrapersonal: Write a letter to yourself about where you want to be in ten years. Reflect on how your goals would be compromised if you were forced to turn your attention to another human being. Assume that your responsibilities would be maximized similar to Bobby’s and that adults would let you assume the brunt of your own mistake.

Refer to the letter as needed.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Review of The Giver by Lois Lowry

1. Bibliography
Lowry, Lois. 1993. The Giver. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-395-64566-2.

2. Summary
The setting is a world very like ours, with families, school, and jobs. The story is told in third person from the perspective of Jonas, who is nearly twelve years old at the start. Small differences begin surfacing, starting with Jonas’s anxiety over a single-pilot jet. It’s not that he’s afraid of attack by an enemy nation or that the aircraft will crash. Jonas is clearly uncomfortable because it is unscheduled, not predicable and expected.

We meet Jonas’s family and classmates and notice unusual ways of expressing ideas. The community stresses rules, politeness, and precise language. The mother is a lawyer; the father is a nurse (though they don’t use these titles). Jonas has a little sister (Lily) about to turn 8. Twice a day the family has conversations; dreams in the morning and feelings in the evening are told, analyzed, and appropriate responses taught.

Every December, the entire community meets for a sort of graduation ceremony. Every year, 50 “newchildren” (babies) born sometime during the previous year are named and given to families. Changes in clothing—front buttons and pockets—mark milestones to the important age of 8, when everyone starts after-school volunteer work. At 9, everyone gets a bicycle. At 12, they receive an assignment of their life work. They will continue in school longer, depending on the need of the assignment, but these new adults will have no more celebrations of their age.

Adults apply for spouses; the Elders who assigned careers also match couples. Couples apply for children; family units are one boy and one girl child. The babies come from Birthmothers, who give birth to three children, turn their newborns over to Nurturers (nurses), and then become Laborers the rest of their lives. (Note that Birthmothers do not appear to ever raise children.) Once their children are gone, parents leave for Childless Adults housing and then (when no longer productive) the House of the Old, where they are well cared for and respected. Citizens can be “released” if they are infants that are failing to thrive, they are very old, or they have committed three major violations of rules. Requesting release and fatal accidents are very rare; no one is ever sick.

Most of the 12-year-olds have shown an aptitude for various careers, but not Jonas. He volunteered in almost every job available, is smart and well-behaved. He also has light colored eyes, which are rare, and is beginning to have flashes in how he sees objects. At the Ceremony of Twelve, Jonas is selected for a singular job—Receiver of Memories.

The next day after school Jonas reports to the Annex of the House of the Old to begin his new career, one which he doesn’t understand. An old man with eyes as pale as Jonas’ explains that he alone holds the memories of all past generations for all the Community. The Elders consult his memories and understanding of their meaning when something unexpected happens—like the jet flying overhead. The unexpected happens seldom.

Each subsequent afternoon, the old man (who told Jonas to call him The Giver) gives Jonas memories of things not known in this world—snow, colors, sunshine, sunburn, a Civil War battlefield, an elephant dying from a hunter’s bullet, starvation, and Christmas. Only these two can ask anyone any question without repercussions for impoliteness. Only the Giver’s dwelling has a wall full of books. But the Giver lives alone, apart.

With each new memory, Jonas understands more about what is missing from his world and the cost of Sameness. As his knowledge grows, so does his anger, frustration, and isolation from his community. The knowledge of what “release” really is (homicide or assisted suicide) provides both the motive and the opportunity for Jonas and the Giver to release the memories back to the entire community—to end Sameness.

Just before Jonas became Receiver, his father stretched the rules to bring home a baby who wasn’t thriving (to give extra nurturing to). Jonas becomes attached to Gabriel when he realizes that he can give memories to the pale-eyed infant the same way that The Giver gives him memories. Nearly a year after meeting the Giver, Jonas learns that Gabriel is scheduled for release/death for failing to sleep through the night. Jonas grabs what he can and flees with the toddler Gabriel. The ending of the book is ambiguous. Does Jonas freeze to death, or find a world that choose Christmas instead of Sameness?

3. Critical Analysis
My first experience with this book was two years ago, when our 6th grade Reading teacher used The Giver as a class listen-and-read-along. I heard a wonderful taped voice read the first few pages and read with the students the last few pages. The students and I thoroughly enjoyed the book except for the ambiguous ending. Lois Lowry says at “Many kids want a more specific ending to The Giver. Some write, or ask me when they see me, to spell it out exactly. And I don't do that. And the reason is because The Giver is many things to many different people.”

Sparknotes Teaching Guide at says that Ms. Lowry was “inspired to write The Giver—which won the 1994 Newbery medal—after visiting her elderly father in a nursing home. He had lost most of his long-term memory, and it occurred to Lowry that without memory there is no longer any pain. She imagined a society where the past was deliberately forgotten, which would allow the inhabitants to live in a kind of peaceful ignorance. The flaws inherent in such a society, she realized, would show the value of individual and community memory: although a loss of memory might mean a loss of pain, it also means a loss of lasting human relationships and connections with the past.”

In the beginning, Jonas and all the people he shows us seem content indeed. Punishments are apologizing by formula, or the speaker announcing an infraction but not naming the culprit (causing embarrassment). Then we learn of a discipline wand, and finally a “two-strike” major rule breaker. But, since the worst punishment seems to be “release” (which sounds like expulsion from the community), the reader still thinks this is a pretty nice place to live compared to our world of drive-by shootings and rapes.

In the beginning also, the book seems to be realistic fiction. A boy is riding his bicycle and worrying about something happening in December. Does he have a part in the Christmas play and is worried about forgetting his lines or singing in public? Slowly, though, the reader decides this is science/future fiction even though we don’t see anything wildly “Star Trek” (or “Star Wars”) about the setting. It isn’t until Jonas sees the apple change and receives his first memory from The Giver that the true genre is revealed: science fantasy, the use of the unexplained (magic) in a future world.

Sparknotes continues “The society Lowry depicts in The Giver is a utopian society—a perfect world as envisioned by its creators. It has eliminated fear, pain, hunger, illness, conflict, and hatred—all things that most of us would like to eliminate in our own society. But in order to maintain the peace and order of their society, the citizens …lack the basic freedoms and pleasures that our own society values. In this way, The Giver is part of the tradition of dystopian novels written in English, including George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

In these novels, societies that might seem to be perfect because all the inhabitants are well fed or healthy or seemingly happy are revealed to be profoundly flawed because they limit the intellectual or emotional freedom of the individual. 1984 and Brave New World both feature characters who awaken to the richness of experience possible outside the confines of the society, but they are either destroyed by the society or reassimilated before they can make any significant changes. The books function as warnings to the reader: do not let this happen to your society.

The message of The Giver is slightly more optimistic: by the end of the novel, we believe that Jonas has taken a major step toward awakening his community to the rich possibilities of life. The novel is also slightly less realistic: although the technological advances that allow the community to function are scientifically feasible, the relationship between Jonas and the Giver has magical overtones. But Lowry’s dystopian society shares many aspects with those of 1984 and Brave New World: the dissolution of close family connections and loyalty; the regulation or repression of sexuality; the regulation of careers, marriages, and reproduction; the subjugation of the individual to the community; and constant government monitoring of individual behavior.

The Giver was published in 1993, a time when public consciousness of political correctness was at a peak, and this historical context is interestingly echoed in some aspects of the society that Lowry portrays. One of the most prominent debates surrounding political correctness was—and is—the value of celebrating differences between people versus the value of making everyone in a society feel that they belong.

The society in The Giver’s emphasis on “Sameness” can be seen as a critique of the politically correct tendency to ignore significant differences between individuals in order to avoid seeming prejudiced or discriminatory. At the same time, the society refuses to tolerate major differences between individuals at all: people who cannot be easily assimilated into the society are released. Lowry suggests that while tolerance is essential, it should never be achieved at the expense of true diversity.

In The Giver, Lowry tackles other issues that emerged as significant social questions in the early 1990s. The anti-abortion versus pro-life controversy raged hotly, and new questions arose concerning the ethics of a family’s right to choose to end the life of a terminally ill family member (euthanasia) and an individual’s right to end his or her own life (assisted suicide). Questions about reproductive rights and the nature of the family unit also arose due to advances in genetic and reproductive technology. Books such as Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village and increased press coverage of single parents, extended families, gay parents, and community child-rearing raised complex questions about the forms families could take and the ways they could work.

Lowry’s willingness to take on these issues in The Giver, as well as her insistence on treating all aspects of life in the community, has made The Giver one of the most frequently censored books in school libraries and curricula. Some parents are upset by the novel’s depictions of sexuality and violence, and feel that their middle-school and high-school aged children are unprepared to deal with issues like euthanasia and suicide. Ironically, their desire to protect their children from these realities is not dissimilar to the novel’s community’s attempts to keep its citizens ignorant about—and safe from—sex, violence, and pain, both physical and psychological.”

As to literary style, Sparknotes says “Lowry uses direct, simple language with very few figures of speech or ironic comments (though Jonas and the Giver make ironic statements.) The simplicity of the language is appropriate for Lowry’s audience, children between eleven and fifteen, but it also echoes the ‘precision of language’ demanded by Jonas’s community. Despite the simplicity, the tone is somewhat elevated, suited to the nature of Jonas’s discoveries about the richness of life. …

Important examples of foreshadowing in The Giver include Jonas’s apprehension about the Ceremony of Twelve, which foreshadows his future disillusionment with the community; and his feeling of closeness and freedom with the old woman while he bathes her, which foreshadows his longing for grandparents and other close, personal connections.”

In a way, young readers wanting Ms. Lowry to give a firm answer on the ending echoes very well the way Jonas is content in the beginning of the story. He knows what to expect; he can control his language and emotions to meet community approval. In some ways, I think many of my students will find the beginning of this book just as comforting.

Until I was 9, being embarrassed as Jonas was about taking the apple was also very effective as behavior modification. I remember when gold stars on an achievement chart were used (in my elementary days) and forbidden. When I was a teacher in the year 2000, I couldn’t even list the 7th grade students who made 100 on a test because I was told the other students would be embarrassed not to make the same grade. My students got around the system by asking each other their grades! All that this rule really did was eliminate adult approval for good grades. Students set the standard for approval, and that often meant approving bad grades more than good grades since the middle school years are a time of rebellion and individual achievement not known in Sameness.

Having reached “apprentice” adulthood at the Ceremony of Twelve, Jonas and the reader begin to think about life and Sameness differently. Jonas’ group has a two-day vacation, but we can already feel that they are going separate ways according to their careers. At some point in children’s lives, they also become discontented. They want to have the privileges of adulthood, to be the same as adults, but are not prepared (or willing) to accept the responsibilities of adulthood. The memories help Jonas grow up; an inability to transmit those memories to his school group (verbally or by touch) frustrates and angers him. Middle school teachers can certainly identify with this frustration! Why won’t you listen to me when I show you how to grow up? The answer, of course, is that no one can grow up for you; it is an individual struggle with its own timeline.

Adulthood means, more than anything else, that you clean up after your choices. Jonas’s father didn’t make a choice—about his career, wife, children, or killing the smaller twin. He simply did what was expected of him. He doesn’t even choose what to have for dinner, or what color clothes to wear today. We see no churches or baseball games. What do families do together, other than the annual Ceremony? What to Childless Adults do (except work)? They aren’t part of their children’s lives after the children marry. I don't think they’d reconnect to the groups they went through school with because we are told more than once how different careers have different levels of respect. Adults in the Sameness Community do not grow up (even to teen rebellion); they just grow older.

What of the other four motifs of fantasy? We don’t have fairies or magic cloaks. Slowly, we do see evil in Sameness, so we certainly can have the good versus evil motif even though we don’t have a villain. Jonas is clearly a hero who matures—past any of those in his society, even The Giver (his protective figure). Jonas leaves his safe world for Elsewhere and learns about cold, hunger, loneliness, physical pain, and fear of discovery. Jonas does become an adult because he accepts the consequences of his choices, both the discomfort of his journey and the spirit-death of staying in his Sameness Community.

Does Jonas return home? This is where the ambiguous ending creates difficulties. I’m a fan of science fiction movies like Logan’s Run, where babies come as “out of nowhere” as the dinners in The Giver. Individuals have unlimited pleasure until they reach the age of 30, when they are also “released” in a public ceremony (called Carousel) somewhat like The Giver. Logan realizes that Carousel is death and flees the biodome. The Giver also reminds me of the movie Pleasantville (where two bickering siblings are sucked into the black and white world of a 1950s television show like Leave It to Beaver). When the sister kisses a character in the show, going off-script literally puts color into their world.

My personal take on the ending is that the sled at the top of the hill is unreasonably lucky. A Christmas scene at the bottom on the hill, “coincidentally” the favorite memory of The Giver, is statistically impossible. How can you account for Jonas never having known rain, snow, or birds in The Community unless climate control is over a larger area than a boy could bicycle through in a matter of weeks? We expect the journey was no more than a month because the natural world stayed in winter. If The Community was inside a biodome, why didn’t Jonas (and the reader) notice some sort of boundary like Logan did?

If the science doesn’t hold, is the ending as simple (and sad) as Jonas and Gabriel hallucinating and dying in the snow? I don’t think so because this isn’t science fiction; it’s science fantasy. Perhaps the critics who point out the Christian symbolism are right. The month is December, a time of year celebrated as rebirth by the Celtic people from 1500 B.C.E. and adopted by Christians over a thousand years ago. Jonas and Gabriel are Old Testament names. Our Jonas’ love for Gabriel and his whole Community is strong enough to offer his life on a hill for the redemption of others. Magic isn’t only possible; it’s integral to fantasy. I think Jonas does return home; he completes his hero’s quest.

Sparknotes comments that, “On the road … Jonas’s mental powers become so strong that they are able to defy the community’s sophisticated tracking technology and defeat the natural world. Memories of cold keep Jonas and Gabriel safe from the heat-seeking planes searching overhead, and memories of warmth help them to stay alive in the bitter cold. The extent of Jonas’s powers to defy technology indicates that feelings have triumphed over cold logic in the story …

Whether or not he hears or imagines their singing behind him, Jonas knows that he has given them what he set out to give them: love and loneliness, freedom and choice. He has become the ultimate Giver of Memory, awakening his entire community to the possibilities of life. If the Christmastime village Jonas sees at the end of the novel does not really exist—if it is only a hallucination—we can still rest assured that in leaving his memories to the community, Jonas is turning his own community into that Christmas village. Enhanced by a new kind of sensory experience—music—that did not exist in Jonas’s received memories, the village is as much a prophecy as it is a memory. The society is moving forward and looking back. The ending is undeniably hopeful.”

Ms. Lowry agrees at “How could it not be an optimistic ending, a happy ending, when that house is there with its lights on and music is playing? So I'm always kind of surprised and disappointed when some people tell me that they think that the boy and the baby just die. I don't think they die. What form their new life takes is something I like people to figure out for themselves. And each person will give it a different ending.”

4. Book Reviews says this about The Giver, “In a world with no poverty, no crime, no sickness and no unemployment, and where every family is happy, 12-year-old Jonas is chosen to be the community's Receiver of Memories. Under the tutelage of the Elders and an old man known as the Giver, he discovers the disturbing truth about his utopian world and struggles against the weight of its hypocrisy. With echoes of Brave New World in this 1994 Newbery Medal winner, Lowry examines the idea that people might freely choose to give up their humanity in order to create a more stable society. Gradually Jonas learns just how costly this ordered and pain-free society can be, and boldly decides he cannot pay the price.”

From Publishers Weekly, “In the ‘ideal’ world into which Jonas was born, everybody has sensibly agreed that well-matched married couples will raise exactly two offspring, one boy and one girl. … Lowry's development of this civilization is so deft that her readers, like the community's citizens, will be easily seduced by the chimera of this ordered, pain-free society. Until … Jonas grows increasingly aware of the hypocrisy that rules his world. With a storyline that hints at Christian allegory and an eerie futuristic setting, this intriguing novel calls to mind John Christopher's Tripods trilogy and Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Match Girl. Lowry is once again in top form--raising many questions while answering few, and unwinding a tale fit for the most adventurous readers. Ages 12-14.”

Amy Kellman, The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, writes for School Library Journal "Grade 6-9-- In a complete departure from her other novels, Lowry has written an intriguing story set in a society that is uniformly run by a Committee of Elders. Twelve-year-old Jonas's confidence in his comfortable ‘normal’ existence as a member of this well-ordered community is shaken when he is assigned his life's work … The Giver … teaches him the cost of living in an environment that is ‘without color, pain, or past.’ The tension leading up to the Ceremony …and the drama and responsibility of the sessions with The Giver are gripping. The final flight for survival is as riveting as it is inevitable. The author makes real abstract concepts, such as the meaning of a life in which there are virtually no choices to be made and no experiences with deep feelings. This tightly plotted story and its believable characters will stay with readers for a long time.”

R. F. W. of AudioFile says, “Praise and controversy precede this powerful story of a boy confronting the hidden truth about his futuristic society. Winner of the 1994 Newbery Award, Lowry's story sparks emotion and response from adults and children alike. This is a compelling prospect for family listening.

Initially Rifkin's voice seems too regional to portray the characters of this utopian/dystopian world, but he convincingly conveys the anticipation of the coming-of-age ceremony of Jonas and his friends. As the meaning of Jonas' selection as "Receiver of Memory" unfolds, Rifkin's characterizations become more powerful. Although the story drives the presentation, Rifkin's juxtaposition of the young boy and the old Giver has tremendous effect. His voice for the Giver becomes increasingly weary and strained while Jonas' gains strength. Sharing this audiobook in a family or a classroom offers a valuable opportunity to respond to and discuss Lowry's moving novel.”

Kirkus Reviews comments “In a radical departure from her realistic fiction and comic chronicles of Anastasia, Lowry creates a chilling, tightly controlled future society where all controversy, pain, and choice have been expunged, each childhood year has its privileges and responsibilities, and family members are selected for compatibility. … [The transfer of memories to Jonas] is deeply disturbing; for the first time, Jonas learns about ordinary things like color, the sun, snow, and mountains, as well as love, war, and death: the ceremony known as ‘release’ is revealed to be murder. Horrified, Jonas plots escape to ‘Elsewhere,’ … a desperate journey whose enigmatic conclusion resonates with allegory: Jonas may be a Christ figure, but the contrasts here with Christian symbols are also intriguing. Wrought with admirable skill--the emptiness and menace underlying this Utopia emerge step by inexorable step: a richly provocative novel. (Fiction. 12+)” says, “Simply and beautifully written, The Giver is sure to touch the heart of every reader. Lois Lowry deals with issues of everyday life that are so often taken for granted. Through the noble character of Jonas, she presents a glimpse of what could be the future. As the tension in the novel mounts, so does the number of questions that Lowry confronts the reader with. One can not help but grapple with their intense significance. The Giver is a book of courage and adventure, and most importantly, one of deep thought. Once readers make contact with Lowry's treasure, they may never see things exactly quite the same. Lowry presents a forceful novel that demands to be heard and philosophically dealt with.”

Carol Hurst’s Children’s Literature Site classifies The Giver as both science fiction and fantasy. “You see, in the Utopian society Lowry has created for us, the people don't want to be burdened with memories. However, they also don't want to make decisions or changes which, in the past, have led to disaster so they have assigned one person to keep all the memories of history, their own and that of all societies. The Receiver's job is to listen to their proposals and just tell them whether or not they should do it based on the lessons of history. … This novel is not difficult to read. Fifth graders should have no trouble reading it. You need to read it. Then decide what kids you're going to share it with. It's very special. You can't put it down. You can't forget it.”

5. Connections customers who bought The Giver also bought Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry, Holes by Louis Sachar, The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton, Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, and Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson.

Virginia Frank wrote this Cyber Guide lesson for Schools of California Online Resources for Educators (SCORE) at

Introduction: The Giver presents a ‘today’ world of sameness: no yesterdays (historical background), no differentiated human rights, no opportunity to exercise any freedoms. Since our world is not like that, this unit is designed in the hope that, upon completion, students will have a greater appreciation of the freedoms they have in the present and future and the importance of the past in the direction of that future.

During these lessons, students will explore our history via the Library of Congress and create a chart personalizing the history of 3 days. They will then move on to the world by investigating differences in rights and freedoms globally, collecting and analyzing their data and writing a summary of their findings. They will also make use of their individual freedom to choose by completing an interest inventory, exploring careers linked to their interest and talents, and preparing an outline for their future. The culminating activity will grant them some insight into Lois Lowry's conclusion of the book and will require them to write their own ending.

Description of Materials, Activities and Websites: class set of The Giver by Lois Lowry, access to the Internet for up to 5 class periods per student, use of a printer attached to the computer, pens/pencils/paper for student writings, teacher printed directions for the activities, and a computer with audio capabilities.

Student Activity 1, Chart: students will be asked to visit the Library of Congress' American Memory site ( and find historical events which took place today, yesterday and on their birthdays. They will be asked to complete [a teacher provided blank] chart by summarizing the information for each day, selecting pertinent facts, and finding differences in the scope and organization of the texts read, when relevant.

Student Activity 2, Historical Jigsaw: students will again visit American Memory and will see what life would look like if, as it was in Jonas' world, everything was in black and white. They will be given an historical picture that has been ‘jig sawed’ and will have to put it back together electronically. They will then be able to print it as a complete historical document and see how structure influences text. They will use information to problem solve.

Student Activity 3, Informational Chart: students will be asked to find statistics on per capita income, economically active population, life expectancy, and school enrollment for the following five countries (or any countries of your choosing): Afghanistan, Mexico, Russian Federation, Somalia, and United States of America. They will see how structure of information presented influences the text.

They will be asked to print out their Information chart and answer 4 questions by summarizing the data. The questions, all revolving around rights of individuals, are as follows:
Are individual rights the same everywhere in the world for everyone?
Can everyone earn the same amount of money?
Can everyone get a job?
Can everyone stay healthy?
Can everyone get an education?

Then the students will be asked to write a paragraph summarizing their findings.” Go to (a United Nations website written for middle school students). “There are statistics on many countries, so any particular choice of countries would suffice. I chose Afghanistan, Mexico, Russian Federation, Somalia, and USA because of their differing forms of society/government/culture and because many of my students are familiar with them. Print out the Cyber direction sheet for the students before they begin this activity and be sure that a printer with paper is ready to use.

Student Activity 4, Formulate a Career Plan: The students will visit The Career Key and take an interest inventory by checking off items in the program. Then the program will analyze their answers and formulate a list of possible careers. The students will click on the one(s) they are interested in and the program will lead them through the job's descriptions, qualifications and possible earnings. This will meet partially the Internet search standard. The students will then formulate a career plan ("resume"). The Career Key is written for middle school students so the reading level should be in their comfort zone. Some students may take longer than others to complete this due to the great amount of choices given. If time is of the essence, you may wish to limit each student to 1 or 2 job choices. Note: You may wish to have blank disks available for students who want to download their information so that they can explore more on their own time.

Student Activity 5, Narrative Response to Literature: Many students are disappointed with the ending of The Giver and are curious about the author's actual intended ending. This culminating activity is a recording of Lois Lowry addressing this issue. The students may wish to write and orally present (optional) their own endings after reading about Ms. Lowry.

McDougal Littell's Novel Guide has this lesson for grades 7 and 8 at on the theme of freedom of choice.
From the summary: “When the life of a baby, whom Jonas has become attached to, is threatened, Jonas must decide where his loyalties lie.

Classifying: Making Choices: To stimulate an oral discussion on freedom of choice, invite students to brainstorm things they do every day. Then have students classify each activity as 1) one that is totally their choice, 2) one in which they have some choice, or 3) one in which they have no choice. Students might work individually or as a group to chart their answers. Have students look for patterns in the types of items that appear under each heading. Conclude by revealing to students that the freedom to choose is an important issue in the novel they will read.

Connecting to Real Life: Book of Rules: Begin a discussion about whether it is important to follow rules and the reasoning for rules in our society. Then ask students to create, independently or as a class, a list of rules they follow at home, at school, or in their community. Ask them to divide the rules into two groups: those that they believe are important and essential and those that are not important or are unnecessary. Suggest that they display their two lists of rules in a collage on a bulletin board or other wall area to use in later comparisons with the rules of Jonas's community.

A Great Debate:
Have students debate the question "Is it better for all people to be alike or for people to be different?" First assign students to one of two groups: Pro-Sameness or Pro-Diversity. To prepare for the debate, have each group brainstorm ideas to support their side and organize their best defense. You may wish to allow time for students to find facts that support their position from the novel, from almanacs, and other sources.

Act it Out: Ask students to consider what would happen if the freedom to make any choice were suddenly taken away from them. Instruct a group of students to write a skit in which the characters are without freedom of choice; have a second set of students perform the skit.

Genetic Engineering: The Community has been genetically altered for Sameness. Instruct students to research genetic engineering and tell whether they think it is right or wrong to tamper with nature in this way. Have them write a persuasive essay on this issue, using examples from their research as well as from The Giver.

Compare: Research another utopian-like community, such as the Shakers. Write a comparison between that community and the one presented in The Giver, in which you consider the rules of conduct within the community as well as its relationship with the outside world.

This lesson comes from Gary D. Schmidt, Director of English, Calvin College at
Teaching Ideas: The Giver is a gripping story that draws the reader into a unique world with disturbingly close echoes of our own. It asks deep and penetrating questions about how we live together in a society. What must we give up, for example, in order to live in peace? How much should the individual lose of himself or herself for the collective good? Can we ignore and minimize pain in our lives--both physical and emotional--to live happier existences? These ideas, combined with an ending that can be interpreted in two different ways, can lead to a classroom experience that challenges, provokes, and perhaps disturbs.

Pre-Reading Activity: Have students create a “perfect” community, giving it a name, a system of government, and a physical description, and accounting for how its people spend their days. Discuss how that community would change and grow. What roles would history and memories of painful events play in the growth of the community? What would have to be added to our own society in order to make it perfect? What would be lost in this quest for perfection?

Thematic Connections, Family/Parental Relationships: In The Giver, each family has two parents, a son, and a daughter. The relationships are not biological, but are developed through observation and a careful handling of personality. In our own society, the makeup of family is under discussion. How are families defined? Are families the unchanging foundations of a society, or are they continually open for new definitions?

Diversity: The Giver pictures a community in which every person and his or her experience is precisely the same. The climate is controlled, and competition has been eliminated in favor of a community in which everyone works only for the common good. What advantages might “Sameness” yield for contemporary communities? In what ways do our differences make us distinctly human? Is the loss of diversity worthwhile?

Euthanasia: Underneath the placid calm of Jonas’s society lies a very orderly and inexorable system of euthanasia, practiced on the very young who do not conform, the elderly, and those whose errors threaten the stability of the community. What are the disadvantages and benefits to a community that accepts such a vision of euthanasia?

Feelings: Jonas remarks that loving another person must have been a dangerous way to live. Describe the relationships between Jonas and his family, his friends Asher and Fiona, and the Giver. Are any of these relationships dangerous? Perhaps the most dangerous is that between Jonas and the Giver—the one relationship built on love. Why is that relationship dangerous and what does the danger suggest about the nature of love?

Connecting to the Curriculum, Philosophy: A number of utopian communities were established in the U.S., such as the Shakers in the eighteenth century or Fruitlands, led by Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott), in the mid-nineteenth century. Have students choose one of these communities and list the principles that guided it, as well as the assumptions behind those principles. What generalizations might be made about why such a community may not last?

Science: While throwing an apple back and forth, Jonas suddenly notices that it “changes;” in fact, he is beginning to perceive color. Divide the class into groups and have them research and report on the following subjects: the nature of color and of the spectrum, how the human eye perceives color, what causes color blindness, and what causes the body to react to any stimulus. Is it possible to train the human eye so that it does not perceive color?

Language Arts: The ending of The Giver may be interpreted in two very different ways. Perhaps Jonas is remembering his Christmas memory–one of the most beautiful that the Giver gave to him–as he and Gabriel are freezing to death, falling into a dreamlike coma in the snow. Or perhaps Jonas does hear music and, with his special vision, is able to perceive the warm house where people are waiting to greet him. In her acceptance speech for the Newbery Medal, Lois Lowry mentioned both possibilities, but would not call one correct, the other not. After discussing the role of ambiguity in writing, have students craft short stories that end on an ambiguous note. Discuss some in class, noting the writers’ clues for such an ending.

Sociology: Choose a group in the U.S. today that actively seeks to maintain an identity outside of the mainstream culture: the Amish or Mennonites, a Native American tribe, the Hasidic Jewish community, or another group. Have students research and report on the answers to questions such as the following: What benefits does this group expect from defining itself as “other?” What are the disadvantages? How does the mainstream culture put pressure on such a group?

Vocabulary: Lois Lowry helps create an alternate world by having the community use words in a very special way. Though that world stresses what it calls 'precision of language,' in fact it is built upon language that is not precise, but that deliberately clouds meaning. Consider what Jonas’s community really means by words such as: released (p. 2), feelings (p. 4), animals (p. 5), Nurturer (p. 7), Stirrings (p. 37), replacement child (p. 44), and Elsewhere (p. 78). Examine the ways that Jonas’s community uses euphemism to distance itself from the reality of what they call “Release.” How does our own society use euphemism to distance the realities of death, bodily functions, aging, and political activities? What benefits and disadvantages are there to such a use of language?

More lessons are available at and (prepared by Gary D. Schmidt, Department of English, Calvin College). gives related areas on other websites.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Review of The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

1. Bibliography
DiCamillo, Kate. 2003. The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press. ISBN 0-7636-1722-9.

2. Summary
The 270 pages of the book are divided into five parts. The first three are the story to the climax from three different angles: the mouse, rat, and serving girl. The fourth part brings the characters together for the climax and “happily ever after.” The fifth part, entitled “Coda,” is a short note from the author. The book is told in third person, with the author occasionally addressing us as “reader” (for the first time on page 15).

Book the First is entitled “A Mouse is Born.” Antoinette (brought into the castle by a French diplomat) and Lester Tilling already have several mouse children. The book starts with Antoinette giving birth to another litter, of which only one unusually small boy mouse survives. She names the baby Despereaux, “disappointment,” because it is one of her favorite words (page 12) and because of the recent events in the castle that the reader will soon learn of—the death of the queen. Despereaux’s unconventional behavior brings him into contact with King Phillip and his daughter Pea. For consorting with humans, the Mouse Council sentences Despereaux to the dungeon—with the rats.

In the dungeon, Despereaux meets Gregory the jailer, who has a rope tied around his ankle to help him find his way in the dark maze. When Despereaux explains that he must survive the dungeon because he is in love, Gregory shows the mouse a massive pile of spoons, kettles, and soup bowls—“a monument to the foolishness of love” (page 79). Chapter Fifteen ends with Gregory offering to save Despereaux’s life (something he didn’t do for any of the other mice sentenced to the dungeon over the years) because “you, mouse, can tell Gregory a story. Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark.” (page 81) The author tells us it is time to turn our attention to one rat in particular.

“Book the Second, Chiaroscuro” is the story of the rat whose name means “arrangement of light and dark, darkness and light together” (page 85). The first we know of Roscuro (his nickname), he is chewing on Gregory’s rope and getting his face burned for his insolence. Roscuro confides in Botticelli Remorso (“a very old one-eared rat”) that he thinks that “the meaning of life is light.” Botticelli has other ideas: “‘The meaning of life is suffering, specifically the suffering of others.’” He promises to give the next prisoner to Roscuro to torture (page 88). The next prisoner is a man who sold his daughter for a red tablecloth, a hen, and some cigarettes. Taking away the tablecloth didn’t satisfy Roscuro, however, so he sneaks upstairs into the light.

Bedazzled by the light, Roscuro waltzes happily into the banquet hall and climbs into the chandelier to get a better view. Princess Pea spots him. The rat falls into the queen’s soup, and the “simple soul” (page 112) has a heart attack. The princess’s glare “filled with disgust and anger” (page 113) breaks Roscuro’s heart. He steals a golden spoon for a crown and vows revenge. Chapter Twenty-three speaks of consequences. Roscuro’s story is tied to Despereaux’s just at the point of meeting the princess on the same evening that Miggery Sow, “a young girl with ears that looked like … cauliflower” is approaching the castle. Second Book ends with “she would be instrumental in helping the rat work his revenge” (page 121).

Book the Third is entitled “Gor! The Tale of Miggery Sow.” As promised, it is a short history of the life and times of a girl born far from the castle and named for her father’s prize-winning pig (page 125). At the age of six, Mig’s Ma stares directly into her daughter’s eyes and dies. Her last words are, “‘Ah, child, and what does it matter what you are wanting?’” (page 126). Soon after his wife’s death, Mig’s Papa sells her for a red tablecloth, hen, and some cigarettes to a man who tells her to call him Uncle.

Uncle “very much liked giving Mig what he referred to as ‘a good clout to the ear’” (page 128), which results in both disfigurement and lost of hearing. “The less she understood, the more things she did wrong; and the more things she did wrong, the more clouts to the ear she received, and the less she heard. This is what is known as a vicious circle. And Miggery Sow was right in the center of it.” (page 130) On her seventh birthday, Mig sees the royal family out riding and tells Uncle she wants to be a princess. He hits her again.

Five years later, King Phillip’s soldiers come to Uncle’s farm to confiscate their soup-related items and discover Uncle owns a girl. They take the orphan to the castle to be a paid servant. Mig meets Princess Pea again, but Louise (the head of the serving staff) gives Mig the same clout to the ear Uncle did because Mig took too long to deliver red thread. The author tells us (pages 152f) that Mig is lazy and slow-witted. “Because of these shortcomings, Louise was hard-pressed to find a job that Miggery Sow could effectively perform.”

The now plump Mig is sent to Cook, who also can find no task Mig can do right. Mig is assigned the last-resort job of delivering the noonday meal to Gregory the jailer. Other servants had run terrified from the smells and sounds of the dungeon. Mig has also lost much of her sense of smell from Uncle’s clouts. She breaks into song, attracting Roscuro. Roscuro treats Mig like a lady and promises to help her become a princess.

Book the Fourth is the story of Roscuro’s kidnapping of Princess Pea with Mig’s help and Despereaux’s attempt to rescue her. Despereaux seeks the aid of the Mouse Council and Cook, who is making soup even though it’s illegal. He gets a sewing needle from the first and dinner (at the cost of his tail) from the second. Botticelli Remorso offers to lead Despereaux to where Roscuro is tricking Mig into chaining up Princess Pea. At the crucial moment, someone (the princess) finally cares what Mig wants. The two orphans have a bond, but the situation is stalemated unless Roscuro has a change of heart.

Despereaux rushes in and holds his needle to Roscuro’s heart. But, “would killing the rat really make the darkness go away?” (page 262) he wonders. Roscuro smells the soup on Despereaux and remembers his one trip into the light. Like Mig confessing what she really wanted, Roscuro now confesses why he really wanted the princess in the dungeon. The princess saves the day by offering to eat soup with Roscuro in the dining hall. In Chapter Fifty-two, “Happily Ever After,” we learn the mixed fate of each of the three main characters and get one last scene—the dinner party of King Phillip, Princess Pea, Despereaux, Roscuro, and Mig. Four mice look on: Despereaux’s mother, father, brother Furlough, and threadmaster Hovis.

3. Critical Analysis
Of all the books I’ve read so far for this class, I found the most book reviews and had the most conflicting feelings about Despereaux. In the first three months we had the book in my middle school’s library, Despereaux was checked out every week. For the next school year (2004/2005), it was checked out once a month, almost every month. Last school year, it was checked out seven times despite being an Accelerated Reader. (Sixth graders who are not Special Ed or ESL are limited to AR books.)

The book is longer than many of my fiction books. Some of the amateur Internet reviewers found being addressed directly to be endearing; others found it distracting or annoying. I didn’t like being drawn out of the story for these asides. I didn’t know what “perfidy” meant, didn’t want to get a dictionary, disliked the author’s tone when being asked what I thought was going to happen next, and thought some of the asides were preachy. I think my circulation statistics show that my 11 to 15 year old patrons didn’t like DiCamillo’s “dear reader” either since they do frequently check out the Lemony Snicket books, three more of which I added this year. (I now have six.)

Dividing 270 pages into three separate stories before bringing the threads together is fine for adults. I think reading 74 pages about the mouse, beginning another story entirely for the rat for 40 pages, and starting over again for Mig’s 50-page story is too complicated to keep the interest of my students. I’ve helped several students over the last three years with their book reports. Most express confusion with flashbacks and don’t like the device, especially used more than once in the book.

I enjoyed Despereaux as a comment on history. I liked the depth of details, such as the names of the Tilling children—French like their mother (whose first thought is of her beauty). Furlough clearly takes after his father’s family, with their intolerance for a mouse that doesn’t look or act normal. Is the Kingdom of Dor related to Dorchester, England? The rats have clever Italian names; compare Roscuro to “obscure” (dark) and Remorso to “remorse.” In Britain during the Louis period in France, churchmen would have been Italians that the English thought as little of as rats!

I chuckled over the name of the princess, which I first took to be a reference to the classic tale of The Princess and the Pea. (One pea under a mountain of mattresses proved the girl was a real princess.) Later learning of the queen’s fondness for soup, I wondered if the daughter was named for pea soup. Perhaps she’s both. She has a way of warming the heart and shows her nobility in forgiving Roscuro.

Females don’t fare well in DiCamillo’s tale. Despereaux’ vain mother tells him goodbye without any attempt to defend him. Mig’s mother dies with a harsh word to her daughter: nobody cares what you want. Queen Rosemary ends her life by yet another statement of the obvious (as dim-witted as Mig). Louise clouts Mig. Cook cuts off Despereaux’s tail. Even the “almost too perfect” Pea is cross with Mig for not waving back. Mig is regarded by some reviews as victim, but by others a villain.

By comparison, Threadmaster Hovis encourages Despereaux. Gregory the jailor offers to save Despereaux. Lester realizes his mistake and asks his son’s forgiveness. King Phillip’s response to his wife’s death is illogical but romantic. He makes time for his daughter before and after her mother’s death. We don’t know why Mig’s father is thrown into the dungeon, but apparently not for selling Mig.

Uncle is one of three unchanged characters: he isn’t thrown into the dungeon for abusing Mig. Furlough isn’t sorry he betrayed Despereaux. Remorso isn’t remorseful. Several characters in this story have sorrow, but no one is physically punished like Mig.

I liked that every character in the book is a blend of light and darkness. I particularly liked that the princess, not Despereaux, resolves the stalemate in the dungeon. Like Despereaux faced with his father begging him for forgiveness, “Pea was aware suddenly of how fragile her heart was, how much darkness was inside it, fighting always with the light. … [She] knew what she must do to save her own heart.” (page 264) Despereaux didn’t kill Roscuro because he didn’t think it would solve anything.

The most satisfying part of the tale for me was the way details matched. Hovis puts red thread around Despereaux’s neck in the first book; Mig delivers red thread to Pea in the third book. A red tablecloth is tossed to a prisoner in the second book; we identify the prisoner as Mig’s long lost father in the third book. The color red is used consistently throughout, as is the attraction of light by both unconventional rodents (Despereaux and Roscuro).

If this was a traditional fairy tale, like the Grimms’ retelling, we would not have complex characters or not quite “happily ever after” endings. Roscuro got the light he longed for after leading Mig to her father, but never really belonged anywhere. Roscuro’s is the sad fate “of those whose hearts breaks and then mend in crooked ways.” (page 266)

I also was disturbed by the nonchalant way Ms. DiCamillo seemed to treat Mig’s abuse. Mig didn’t get her mother back and didn’t become a princess, but she (as dim-witted as Queen Rosemary) did get a loving father like Princess Pea. Wasn’t that as close to her real wish as possible? Don’t these two endings show us the difference between villain and victim—which one gets happiness in the end?

Our textbook defines fantasy fiction as any work in which magic figures. Talking animals is one of six motifs, so Despereaux certainly is fantasy. The second motif is other worlds, which can simply be our world in some past time (as in fairy tales). The theme is good versus evil, which gives rise to the conflict that creates the story. Ms. DiCamillo clearly states the importance of light in speeches from Gregory and Roscuro (see summary).

We expect the hero’s quest in Despereaux’s actions. But, doesn’t Mig, and even Roscuro, go on a quest? Music is Despereaux’s herald; Pea is Mig’s; and a match is Roscuro’s. The unsafe place for each of the three is the room with Pea, Uncle’s farm, and upstairs. Trials are Despereaux being sentenced to the dungeon (family active in the expulsion), Mig surviving the clouts which rob her of hearing and smell, and Roscuro being run out of the light by the hatred of the glittery princess. Protective figures are Hovis, Gregory, and (to some degree) Remorso. Note that Mig doesn’t have a protector.

For Despereaux, maturing was facing his fears, forgiving his father, and not killing Roscuro. Mig couldn’t hurt Pea because Pea no longer had what Mig really wanted—a mother. Roscuro not only leads them out of the dungeon; he gives Mig her father back. Despereaux gains a friendship with the princess; Mig is loved; Roscuro gets access to the light (even though he can’t enjoy it). Despereaux has no special characters or fantastic objects, but contains four of the six motifs of fantasy fiction.

4. Book Reviews
Karin Snelson provided this review: “Kate DiCamillo, author of the Newbery Honor book Because of Winn-Dixie, spins a tidy tale of mice and men where she explores the ‘powerful, wonderful, and ridiculous’ nature of love, hope, and forgiveness. Her old-fashioned, somewhat dark story, narrated ‘Dear Reader’-style, begins ‘within the walls of a castle, with the birth of a mouse.’ The first book of four tells Despereaux's sad story …The second book introduces another creature who differs from his peers—Chiaroscuro ... The fourth book … connects the lives of mouse, rat, girl, and princess in a dramatic denouement.

Children whose hopes and dreams burn secretly within their hearts will relate to this cast of outsiders who desire what is said to be out of their reach and dare to break ‘never-to-be-broken rules of conduct.’ Timothy Basil Ering's pencil illustrations are stunning, reflecting DiCamillo's extensive light and darkness imagery as well as the sweet, fragile nature of the tiny mouse hero who lives happily ever after. (Ages 9 and older)”

Miriam Lang Budin, Chappaqua Public Library, NY writes for School Library Journal, "Grade 3 Up-A charming story of unlikely heroes whose destinies entwine to bring about a joyful resolution. Foremost is Despereaux, a diminutive mouse who, as depicted in Ering's pencil drawings, is one of the most endearing of his ilk ever to appear in children's books. …Then there is the human Princess Pea …Next is Roscuro, a rat with an uncharacteristic love of light and soup. … And finally, there is Miggery Sow, a peasant girl so dim that she believes she can become a princess.

With a masterful hand, DiCamillo weaves four story lines together in a witty, suspenseful narrative that begs to be read aloud. In her authorial asides, she hearkens back to literary traditions as old as those used by Henry Fielding. In her observations of the political machinations and follies of rodent and human societies, she reminds adult readers of George Orwell. But the unpredictable twists of plot, the fanciful characterizations, and the sweetness of tone are DiCamillo's own. This expanded fairy tale is entertaining, heartening, and, above all, great fun.”

The review from Audio File calls Despereaux “an uneven production.” The reader “Graeme Malcolm gives a formal, unembellished reading of the text. In some ways, this fits a story that feels like a fairy tale, and, in other ways, it does little to enliven a story that is somewhat slow paced. Malcolm's… narration doesn't pull any suspense or tension out of the lengthy exposition and flashbacks. There are also many instances of deliberate authorial intrusion that don't work as well in audio as they do on the page.”

Ilene Cooper gives Despereaux a starred review in Booklist. “Gr. 3-6. Forgiveness, light, love, and soup. These essential ingredients combine into a tale that is as soul stirring as it is delicious. ... Mig's desire to be a princess, a rat's yen for soup (a food banished from the kingdom after a rat fell in a bowl and killed the queen), and Despereaux's quest to save his princess after she is kidnapped climax in a classic fairy tale, rich and satisfying.

Part of the charm comes from DiCamillo's deceptively simple style and short chapters in which the author addresses the reader: ‘Do you think rats do not have hearts? Wrong. All living things have a heart.’ And as with the best stories, there are important messages tucked in here and there, so subtly that children who are carried away by the words won't realize they have been uplifted until much later. Ering's soft pencil illustrations reflect the story's charm.”

Matt Warner says in the Barnes and Noble review, “this superbly suspenseful tale … In lilting storytelling language reminiscent of fairy tales of old, DiCamillo spins the yarn of Despereaux Tilling … Adjacent to Despereaux's dilemma is the story of a rat named Chiaroscuro … When these two characters eventually collide … the result is a heroic, surprising heart warmer that brings families together, gives hope to underdogs everywhere, and teems with justice. … Outdoing herself with this simply told yet marvelously complex tale, DiCamillo provides readers with a hero to savor. Timothy Basil Ering's illustrations provide just the right personality to the text, which beckons to be read and reread, even aloud. One fanciful tale to sink your teeth into.”

Publishers Weekly, in its Best Books citation, wrote, "The omniscient narrator recalls Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, assuming a similarly irreverent yet compassionate tone and also addressing readers directly." Ages 7-12.

Susie Wilde comments in Children's Literature how Ms. DiCamillo moves from Because of Winn-Dixie “the story of a lonely young girl who finds sense of community because of a dog who discovers her” to “an extraordinary character, Despereaux, the winning hero of The Tale of Despereaux.” But, she adds, “he's not the only unique character, the book is divided between other remarkable personalities and their engaging stories. There's Roscuro, a dungeon-born rat who seeks light, Miggery Sow, a slow-witted serving girl who only wants to be listened to, and the Princess herself, who still grieves for her mother. Each character's desires, hopes and fears combine in this marvelous questing fantasy. This is a tale made for reading aloud and family enjoyment. If reading aloud is not your forte, there's a wonderful recording by Graeme Malcolm.”

The VOYA review is written by Timothy Capehart. “Despereaux … Chiaroscuro … Miggery Sow … All three stories entwine in the final part of the book in a satisfying and not surprisingly happy ending for nearly everyone. At times, DiCamillo's new fantasy novel is charming, by turns sad, sweet, and mildly scary. At other times, though, the conceit of the narrator addressing the reader directly wears thin. The characters are all well limned, although the princess is, perhaps, too perfect. The story's twists and intertwinings are all believable, but each character is given their own ‘book’ within the novel, and the pacing is thrown off. … Although this story would make an excellent read aloud for the young, most young adults will likely feel that the narration is condescending.” Rating is “Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Will appeal with pushing.”

School Library Journal’s review is an unsigned endorsement for readers grade 3 and up. A “delightful novel …With memorable characters, brief chapters, and inventive plot twists, this fast-paced romp is perfect for reading alone or sharing aloud.”

Barnes and Noble had 140 customer reviews (more than most of the titles I’ve seen) with an average rating of 4.5 out of 5. Beth Walden, at one extreme, wrote “The author made me feel as though I was there in the story seeing everything take place. I really enjoyed the book and it was entertaining. I also liked the fact that it was a story within stories that had to be told to tie everything together.” Marge, who described herself as a retired children’s church director, said she purchased the book to read with her granddaughter and they couldn’t put the book down. “At the end of the book we discussed many values they all applied in their lives, such a forgiveness, compassion, love, and honor! All that could have gone terribly wrong if they applied anger and resentment.”

Seneca thought it a “creative book about the faith that drives this young mouse on.” But “the only thing that lacked creativity was the ending. I think it could have been described more neatly and correctly.” Rachel Graham’s criticism is entitled “Insulting Portrayal of an ‘At-Risk’ Child.” She writes “I feel the Newberry committee deserved to be scolded … a child [being] abused and abandoned is not interesting enough, the author felt the child should be slow-witted, fat and lazy as well. How dare the author make light …I feel this author is unkind and insulting to the 600,000 at-risk children in this country who dream of a day of safety. Are their dreams of a home and family ‘ridiculous?’”

At Elizabeth Kennedy writes that Despereaux “is an odd and engrossing fairy tale. … While of the same high literary quality as her previous two children's books, Because of Winn-Dixie… and The Tiger Rising … and also geared to same 8-12 year old age range, this novel is distinctly different from her others. It has a lot in common with Grimm's fairy tales. …

Despereaux is a wildly entertaining novel with some important messages about being yourself and redemption. The characters include a very special mouse with an affinity for music, a princess named Pea, and Miggery Sow, a poorly treated, slow-witted serving girl. Since every tale needs a villain, even a sometimes sympathetic one, there is a rat named Roscuro to fill that role. This odd assortment of characters is drawn together because of their desire for something more, but it is Despereaux Tilling, the unlikely hero with large ears, who, along with the narrator, is the star of the show.

As the narrator states, ‘Reader, you must know that an interesting fate (sometimes involving rats, sometimes not) awaits almost everyone, man or mouse, who does not conform.’ The unnamed narrator adds wit, humor, and intelligence to the story, frequently speaking directly to the reader, asking questions, admonishing the reader, pointing out the consequences of certain actions, and sending the reader to the dictionary to look up unknown words. Indeed, her use of language is one of the gifts that Kate DiCamillo brings to the story, along with her imaginative storytelling, character development, and ‘voice.’

It was interesting to me to see how Kate DiCamillo incorporated several of the central themes of her other two books, parental abandonment and redemption, in The Tale of Despereaux. Parental abandonment comes in several forms in DiCamillo's books: a parent leaving the family forever, a parent dying, or a parent withdrawing emotionally. Despereaux has always been different from his siblings and when his actions result in life-threatening punishment, his father does not defend him. Princess Pea's mother died as a result of seeing a rat in her soup. As a result, her father has withdrawn and has decreed that soup may no long be served anywhere in his kingdom. Miggery Sow was sold into servitude by her father after her mother died.

However, Despereaux's adventures change the lives of the adults as well as the children and the rat. These changes hinge on forgiveness and again emphasize a central theme: ‘Every action, reader, no matter how small, has a consequence.’ I found this an extremely satisfying book, with lots of adventure, wit, and wisdom. …

The book itself is beautifully designed, with high-quality paper with torn edges (I am not sure what you call that, but it looks great). It is illustrated with strange and beguiling, dense pencil drawings by Timothy Basil Ering. Each of the four books of the novel has a title page, with an intricate border by Ering. I highly recommend this book, both as a novel for 8-12 year olds and as a read aloud for families to share and younger children to also enjoy.”

Book Browse, Your Guide to Exceptional Books at
lists 36 member reviews. One in the first six was clearly from a child, B. Kennedy, who rated the book 5 out of 5. “The Tale of Despereaux is a great book! I say it's the best book I ever read. It has many feelings that a lot of people can understand. The first time I heard the story was in Texas. My teacher read it to the class. But before she finished it, I had to move here. I was very sad until I found it in a book order. And so, we bought it, I finished it, and I decided that it was the best book I ever read. Now I'm reading it to my sister!”

Of Despereaux says, “Four stories whose threads woven together with light and dark … a new classic spreading light.” It gives the book a Kids’ Wings 5-Star Rating (symbolizing high morale character in literature). Sarah Sawtelle says at that Despereaux is funny and heartwarming. The illustrations are particularly effective, as they bring the book vividly to life. This is undoubtedly a tale that will be told again and again throughout the years.”

Class discussions at were posted in January 2004. Jenn called Despereaux “a delightful novel that blends the best elements of the fantasy, heroic epic and fairy tale genres. Add to that some complex characters who pursue their dreams at all costs and you have this ‘must read.’

The characters are extremely well developed. … Despereaux Tilling is a Renaissance mouse; he values the finer things —music, the arts, classic literature and a brimming bowl of delicious soup. … The narrator is equally complex as the other characters within this novel i.e. Princess Pea, Roscuro, and Miggery Sow. The narrator educates the reader regarding the character’s past, foreshadows future conflict and serves to reassure during pivotal moments. “[The Rat, the Princess and the serving girl] sat together until the candle had burned out and another one had to be lit. They sat together in the dungeon. They sat. And sat. And reader, truthfully, they might be sitting there still if a mouse had not arrived” (257).

The plot moves briskly between the four books; each book highlights a different set of characters. Yet DiCamillo successfully weaves the story lines together with the voice of the narrator. She explores many themes within this rich tale: good vs. evil, light vs. dark, what it means to be honorable and the power of hope. The text is carefully crafted; the cadence of words flows effortlessly. This is one of those books that I would like to listen to on audio.”

Rachel (in the same class) wrote, “here are some other things I loved about the book....DiCamillo presents ideas that are very complex and abstract, e.g. love, honor, hope, empathy, in a way that can be understood by children (and I'm thinking on the younger spectrum of our audience). And she does this without simplification or condescension. … A good example of DiCamillo "unpacking" a complex idea is her description of Pea's heart as she's led down to the dungeon, page 198. DiCamillo describes very simply what it means to be terrified and angry, but to still be able to open to what the other person is feeling: empathy.”

Roxanne adds, “What I found extraordinary of this work is how the tone is breezy and cozy, and yet, the story is dark and the quest dangerous. Also a strong point for me: that those who were influenced by the darkness are not that easily mended. The struggle that still goes on at the end of the story for Roscuro between his desire for light and his life-long habit of darkness gives the story the weight of truth.”

Katrina “had a real problem with Miggery Sow. Her life was horrible. … I thought perhaps the princess would have some pity on her, help her to overcome the abuse, bring some sunshine in—but alas, no. I felt that DiCamillo treated this abuse very lightly as if it were of no consequence—making Miggory into a somewhat imbecile who did not matter to anyone—as indeed, she did not. This colored a story and writing that for me was otherwise enjoyable. I would always have the "but" - but what about Miggory? I am amazed that it received the Newbery."

Rachel addressed Miggery's abuse as “many horrible things are made light of in a traditional tale. I do think Miggery mattered, though. It's Pea who finally asks her what she wants, page 254. And though Mig doesn't become a princess, her father treats her like one the rest of his life, page 267.”

Susan agrees that “Miggery Sow is a villain in the story, and it is her desire to be a princess that is one of the driving forces to the story. That is her quest. Do not each of the characters search for something, follow the thread (literally) through the darkness to find their heart's desires? That she has been mistreated allows us to feel more compassion for her. … Delineation of setting is one of our criteria; and the palace, especially the dungeon and the kitchen, were described well.

In terms of style, the narrative, storyteller's voice is introduced right away with ‘The world is dark, and light is precious. Come closer, dear reader. You must trust me. I am telling you a story.’ Just in that admonishment DiCamillo has established the voice and the theme and foreshadows that all will come out right in the end (at least, that is how I read the ‘trust me’ part).

The foreshadowing occurs throughout the book, and this helps the readers. And the storyteller's voice asks questions of the reader. This shows that the narrator respects the reader's opinion and skill in anticipating, and recalls the reader to the threads of the plot. It allows the young readers to feel pride in figuring it out. When introducing it to third and fourth graders, after just the first 3 chapters, they know that Despereaux is different, that his differences will get him into trouble, but that he has been touched by light, and will likely triumph, but the quest will be difficult. That is a lot of plot and characterization in just the first few pages.”

Susan “found the repetition of ‘reader’ comforting, as if I was at the Storyteller's knee, and being reassured that the story will follow the threads to the light, to a conclusion satisfying to Despereaux, and hence, to me.”

Moira was also “disturbed by the fact that the facts of Miggory's life were treated far more lightly than I felt they deserved, however, she was emotionally scarred to the point that she was very unkind. She only hesitates in Roscuro's plan when it is clear that she must hurt Pea, but anything else to become a princess is fine. When I look at the book as a whole, I can see her treatment as the violence that is so often an element of fairy tales (roasting the witch in the oven in Hansel and Gretel for example) where it is simply seen as just desserts. While I was reading the book, I felt more strongly about Miggory's treatment. I wonder if perhaps this might influence some of the more sensitive children reading the book.

Overall, I still adored the book for the beauty of its language and the ideas on love and life the narrator passes along to the reader. The plot flows smoothly through the different books, and the narration serves as a comfort to the reader during the more dire moments, particularly those in the dark dungeon.”

Jane admires “DiCamillo's skill at using the elements of old-style fairy tales while giving the story a modern sensibility and humor that make it unique.” Yet, she “disliked this book by the time I got the end of it. At first I couldn't pinpoint what it was that I found so annoying, but I decided it was simply DiCamillo's use of the word ‘reader.’ For whatever reason, I found it condescending and grating and also kind of derivative.

I'm not sure it's entirely DiCamillo's fault, but every time I read [‘Reader’] I thought of the back cover of the Lemony Snicket books with their letters to "Dear Reader." I didn't mind it (I even enjoyed it) on those books because they are meant to be humorous and over the top. I don't think the intent of Tale of Despereaux was to be humorous in quite this way and so I found this writing style to be incongruous with the tone of the story. It wasn't even the conversational style in general that bothered me; it was just the endless repetition of that word that finally got to me.

Wendy says, “The storyteller's presence creates an interactive and comforting reading experience. The ‘dear reader’ technique, I found to be an invitation to the story. By inviting or asking the reader to join the story, the audience is empowered to not just read the work, but become involved in the story. … Other strength of the book: DiCamillo's segmentation of the book (the four smaller pieces) weaving together to create a tightly woven storyline involving the interdependent needs, abilities, and desires of an eclectic group of characters.”

Shirley “hadn't read this book in awhile until this last week when I read the opening chapters to my classes. I was again impressed with the flow of the language… As for Miggory, she is not a very nice person at all. True, she has been mistreated horribly, but she is very willing to treat others badly... this is like a folktale and the violence is treated as such. Miggory wants to be a princess and is willing to do whatever it takes.”

She “found the ‘Dear Reader’ to be both comforting and inviting. I think children will find it so as well. It really draws the reader in and makes him/her feel a part of the story. The four books told separately and brought together is a literary device that works well here and will enable children to become more sophisticated readers.”

Roxanne believes that we need “the miserable life history and its influence on Miggery to make sense of her willingness in such a despicable plot. Without this back story, we will just have another senseless act of evil. … DiCamillo … seems to be attempting [to make] sense of how and why evil acts happen and, eventually, how they these acts might be defeated…So, from the plot angle, Miggery's abuse is necessary; and from the thematic angle, it is crucial. … [Besides] Miggery goes back to her father, a reformed man, and supposedly has a better life.”

Roxanne claims that addressing the reader “is a tradition that dates way back (17th century English Lit.) Many Victorian and early 20th children's authors used this conversational tone. Lemony Snicket utilizes the Dear Reader convention ... making fun of a much established tradition to create comic effects. DiCamillo, on the other hand, uses this tradition to fit the form of the old fashioned storytelling style.

So, I think it is absolutely natural for anyone to either find this style comforting or grating (I imagine most child readers will find it a great comfort.) However, I plea that we do NOT fault DiCamillo for something she did not do—which is copying Lemony Snicket.”

5. Connections customers who bought Despereaux also bought: The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo, Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo, The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo, Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata, and Mercy Watson to the Rescue by Kate DiCamillo. Barnes and Nobel customers who bought Despereaux also bought: the same DiCamillo books as previously noted plus Olive's Ocean by Kevin Henkes.

At The Tale of Despereaux - Resources for Teachers states that the book's publisher, Candlewick Press, has an excellent 20-page online Teacher's Guide, with detailed activities, including questions, for each section of the book. The Multnomah County Library in Oregon has a helpful one-page The Tale of Despereaux Discussion Guide on its Web site.

The website gives the following research links besides the Candlewick Teacher’s guide and biographies:
Reader's Guide
Deer Mice and White-Footed Mice
Research: MICE (Peromyscus leucopus) andSevilleta Data
Watercress Soup Recipe
Research: RATS
Shenandoah Music
Literary Connections:
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIHM by Robert O'Brien Cyberguide
Christopher Mouse: The Tale of a Small Traveler by William Wise