Last Christmas, my bookworm sister-in-law (and I mean that as a compliment) gave R a beautiful hardcover book titled Great Joy by Kate DiCamillo. I didn't know the book but recognized DiCamillo as the author of Because of Winn-Dixie, which I hadn't read but knew about (set in Florida, made into a movie with A-list actors and Dave Matthews). Then, a few weeks ago, I saw that The Tale of Despereaux was also going to be coming to theaters so I decided I really must read these books. And fortunately, as I was perusing the shelves of Brightlight Books looking for books for R's birthday, both books were there and in excellent condition (though I only noticed later at home that a second grader named Christina had written her name and school on the inside front cover of Winn Dixie and she apparently has "blonde hair, blue eyes and bangs on forehead").
Great Joy, a picture book, is a Christmas story set in WWII in New York City from the rich visual clues in the period clothing and hairstyles, a portrait of a solider on the mother's desk, and street signs. Frances watches the man with the organ grinder and his monkey play every day on the street corner. Her curiosity about their situation compels her to stay awake one night and see where they go. When she realizes they sleep on the street and have nowhere to go at night, she implores her mother to let them come for dinner. Her mother, in practical, cautious reasoning, refuses because they are strangers. However, Frances invites them to the church Christmas play where she is an angel and has one line. During the play, Frances freezes on stage and cannot get her line out, until the old, sad organ grinder appears in the doorway of the church. Then, Frances announces to the audience and to us: "Behold, I bring you tidings of Great Joy!"
Bagram Ibatoulline's illustrations are luminous, glowing, and detailed. The narrative is short but much is said in the last lines and on Frances's face as she triumphantly declares the joy of Christmas.
Because of Winn-Dixie was DiCamillo's first published work. Set in fictional Naomi, Florida, the young heroine India Opal finds the ugliest, smelliest, biggest dog she's ever seen--in the produce section of the Winn-Dixie. And it's because of Winn-Dixie, the name she bestows on the dog, that Opal is able to make her way in the new town where her father is the pastor and through a life where her mother is absent. The characters, even minor ones and even Winn-Dixie, are so fully developed that you know exactly who they are, even though DiCamillo is stingy with her words. This is a fairly short novel and while each chapter reads almost like a short story, the overarching plot is compact. There is nothing needless or unnecessary in her writing. You get just enough and often phrases and descriptions, like poetry, are concentrated and say more and do more. One of my favorite descriptions is of Sweetie Pie Thomas, whom Opal almost runs into as she's leaving a pet store:
"She was standing there, sucking on the knuckle of her third finger, staring in the window of Gertrude's Pets. She took her finger out of her mouth and looked at me. Her eyes were all big and round. "Was that bird sitting on that dog's head?" she asked. She had her hair tied up on a ponytail with a pink ribbon. But it wasn't much of a ponytail, it was mostly ribbon and a few strands of hair....'I'm going to be six years old in September. I got to stop sucking on my knuckle once I'm six, said Sweetie Pie. 'I'm having a party. Do you want to come to my part? The theme is pink.'"
The story of family, friendship, and acceptance is beautiful without being saccharine. Some of that comes from slightly lunatic characters and mostly from DiCamillo's even-handed and tongue-in-cheek style as she writes through Opal. There is also much beauty in her writing though which you will enjoy discovering like the sweet but melancholy Littmus Lozenges.
Finally, there's The Tale of Despereaux, which DiCamillo wrote for a friend's son when he asked for a story with an unlikely hero "with exceptionally large ears." Despereaux is a mouse and this is a fairy tale with kings, princesses, villains, and dungeons. Again, DiCamillo's narrative voice changes as she writes in an oral storytelling style with as much humor as pathos. The narrator even encourages the reader to look up words so that he or she will not miss out on any of the meaning: "At least Lester had the decency to weep at his act of perfidy. Reader, do you know what "perfidy" means? I have a feeling you do, based on the little scene that has just unfolded here. But you should look up the word in your dictionary, just to be sure." The story of soup, honor, revenge, and rescue is a true fairy tale in the best sense of the word--a tale that uses the other-worldly or the absurd to communicate great truths.
All of these works revolve around life, light, beauty, and connection. In Despereaux especially, the desire for light over dark and the battle between the two is played out most explicitly (a chapter entitled Recalled to the Light, a reference to A Tale of Two Cities.) To inflict suffering or to relieve. To exact revenge or to forgive. To torture or to heal. To capture or to rescue. In Despereaux's tale I found all the elements of the Gospel.