Children’s Fantasy Review, Part 4

Rodents are people too: The Tale of Despereaux and The Rats of NIMH.

See Part 3 of this series here.

Talking animals are a classic staple of children’s literature, and even animals that are normally considered pests, like mice and rats, get their share of attention. These tales can run the gamut from the characters being basically human, except in appearance (think The Wind in the Willows), to stories where humans are completely out of the picture (think The Lion King) to stories where animals must deal with the problems caused to them by humans. These stories, understandably considered they’re about rodents, fall closest to the last category.


 

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo is something of an oddity. It is divided into four short stories, the first three each dealing with a different character, and the fourth with how their lives intersect with the inhabitants of the castle. Despereaux, the mouse, is a very unconventional mouse, more interested in reading books than chewing on them, and interested in talking to the Princess Pea, a crime for which he is banished to the dungeon. Roscuro is a rat born in the dungeon. Scorned by the surface world after he accidentally gave the queen a heart attack, he seeks revenge on Princess Pea. Miggery Sow is a human servant girl, and none too bright. Her greatest desire is to become a princess herself, and Roscuro uses her to further his own evil schemes. When he puts his plan into action, it is up to Despereaux to save the day.

The Rats of NIMH trilogy consists of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien, and Racso and the Rats of NIMH and R-T, Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH by O’Brien’s daughter, Jane Leslie Conly. The Rats of NIMH were a group of lab rats (and mice) who are scientifically altered to give them great intelligence and long life by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). The experiment worked even better than the scientists expected, as the rats grew smart enough to unlock their cages and escape. Far from the city, they build their own society, first on a farm, and then in a secluded valley. But they must keep their existence a secret, due to the constant danger of being tracked down and recaptured by NIMH. Each of the books shows the rats’ facing their challenge to find and preserve their home.

There are two important things that I learned from reading these books. First, unconventional formats can work. Despereaux wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, and it might be more of an uphill battle, but even with the unusual format, it sold quite well and even won a Newbery Medal. Second, don’t be afraid to make the plot simple. Actually, you almost have to do this. Since middle grade fiction tends to be short, your main choices are to have a very choppy plot where nothing is dwelt upon deeply, like The Wizard of Oz or to have a simple plot where only a few major events happen, and, again, you can jump from one important scene to another with less (but not none!) of the leisurely intervening and reaction material of a full-length novel. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s just the style of the genre.

Camp NaNoWriMo starts tomorrow, and I will be writing my own children’s fantasy novel in July. But I will have one more post to wrap up this series: some modern magic with Half Magic and James and the Giant Peach.

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About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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