I recently took a group of 7th, 8th, and 9th graders through a ten-month creative writing course in which they learned to plot and write a short story. Along with their weekly writing assignments they also had to read two Newbery Award winning novels: The Westing Game and The Tale of Despereaux. I read, and loved, The Westing Game as a tween. But I did not discover Kate DiCamillo until a few years ago. In my opinion, she is the most talented children’s writer alive today. One day I’d love to thank her in person for the impact The Tale of Despereaux had on my students and on my children. It is a breath-taking novel.
This semester, as I gave reading assignments to my students, I read those same chapters to my boys at home. There were times that I stopped in the middle of a passage and marveled DiCamillo’s ability to capture the magic of reading in so few words:
Despereaux looked down at the book, and something remarkable happened. The marks on the pages, the “squiggles” as Merlot referred to them, arranged themselves into shapes. The shapes arranged themselves into words, and the words spelled out a delicious and wonderful phrase: Once Upon A Time.
It is no surprise that The Tale of Despereaux was adapted into an animated film in 2008. And I have nothing against the movie. It’s actually quite lovely. But it doesn’t hold a candle to the book. And on the last day of class, I watched the film with my students. But I told them the same thing that I told my children when I let them watch the movie for the first time. “Listen to the film score,” I said. “And marvel at the digital animation. Enjoy every moment of this film. But remember it wouldn’t exist if a writer hadn’t found the courage to tell her story.”
Question: what are you reading to the child in your life?