100 Chapter Books Project: The Tale of Despereaux

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The last modern book that I’m reading from the Top 100 Chapter Books list is The Tale of Despereaux (2003) by Kate DiCamillo. It was originally released with a very long subtitle–Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread–that seems to have been lost with time. The subtitle isn’t even mentioned in Wikipedia or on DiCamillo’s own webpage.

What it’s about: If you happen to get a copy with the subtitle intact, you will automatically know at least some of what this book is about. Despereaux Tilling is a very tiny mouse, born to a French mama in a castle, home to a Princess who lost her mother when a rat fell into her soup and gave her a heart attack. The King subsequently hates rats, bans soup, and makes the castle a rather gloomy place. Also in the castle are rats, a dungeon, and servants, some of whom really miss soup.

Age level: Grades 2-4

Best part: I love how Despereaux can read and is therefore the kindest, gentlest, and most loving of the mice.

Worst part: I just didn’t really like the way things went for Miggery Sow, the servant girl who used to be a slave, sold by her own father for a tablecloth and some other odds and ends. She is made ugly and deaf by repeated hits upside the head but I don’t see why this had to make her dumb and mean. She is somewhat redeemed by the end but even that was a mixed blessing as she ends up back with the father who sold her.

Verdict: Buy/Borrow

I thought the book was okay but there was a certain something that was missing, perhaps because the story moves focus between the various characters and so you never get to know any of them very well. Still, there are a lot of good morals to pull out of the story and I think a teacher could really bring the story to life in a classroom.

I am so excited to be reading Pippi Longstocking again! The last time I read it was when Z was a preschooler. Since I’ll be pulling out my big collection volume, I might read more than just the first story.

*****
Schedule – February through March
February 15 – #91 Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren (1950)
February 28 – #8 Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (1908)
March 15 – #1 Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (1952)
March 31 – Project Wrap-Up!

100 Chapter Books Project: Betsy-Tacy

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Right in the middle of the Top 100 Chapter Books is Betsy-Tacy (1940) by Maud Hart Lovelace. As this is the start of a semi-autobiographical series that began as bedtime stories to the author’s daughter, it has a lot of heart and obvious love for the characters.

What it’s about: Betsy has been waiting for another five year old girl to move on to her street and soon Tacy’s family obliges by buying the house directly across from them. After a hiccup or two, the girls become fast friends, having fun and helping each other through everything from the first day of school to the loss of a sibling.

Age level: Grades 2-4

Best part: I loved that the story explored the highs and lows of childhood. Nothing was dwelled on over-long but everything seemed to be given the right weight.

Worst part: Possibly the Catholic family with a dozen kids but it was just a passing annoyance and, as the characters were based on real families, I’m not sure it can be considered a stereotype. There really wasn’t much I didn’t enjoy about this story! 

Verdict: Buy/Borrow

This really was a lovely little story. From the girls dressing up and going “calling”, complete with Betsy’s mother’s calling cards, to their entrepreneurial experiments (selling sand in jars that had been colored with leftover Easter egg dye), I found the girls charming. They weren’t faultless but nothing they did or had happen to them was simply for drama’s sake. I’m actually quite intrigued by the fact that the series of thirteen books was written for readers to continue aging along with the characters, ending with Betsy’s Wedding, a YA book. I’m sure that I will end up grabbing the rest of this series at random over the years when I need small, uplifting filler reads.

I think I’ve read The Tale of Despereaux before but I can’t remember for sure because there is a movie version that I know I’ve watched with Z. I do love other Kate DiCamillo books though so I’m sure it will be a good read! Then I have three favorites saved for the end of the project, rereads that I know I will enjoy.

*****
Schedule – January through March
January 31 – #51 The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo (2003)
February 15 – #91 Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren (1950)
February 28 – #8 Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (1908)
March 15 – #1 Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (1952)
March 31 – Project Wrap-Up!

100 Chapter Books Project: The Horse and His Boy

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It’s kind of strange to see which books in a series made it onto the Top 100 Chapter Books list. Two books from The Chronicles of Narnia did — the first and the fifth, The Horse and His Boy (1954). This is the only one of the series books that is just about characters from Narnia and surrounding countries, with only brief appearances from the Pevensies.

What it’s about: A boy who was raised by a fisherman is about to be sold to a man as a servant. When the man and the fisherman go to sleep, Shasta (the boy) finds out that the man’s horse is actually a Horse, a talking beast of Narnia. The two decide to escape and travel together to Narnia and hopefully find Shasta’s original home as well.

Age level: Grades 4-5

Best part: How Shasta expected the worst of people based on where he was raised but then found that it wasn’t like that everywhere. I think it’s a great lesson both ways — that there are bad people in the world but also good ones and so to be wary but also not to necessarily expect the worst.

Worst part: The heavy-handed religious allegories. “There is no fate, only Aslan” was a bit much for me, especially when Aslan conversely had no problem dishing out Old Testament-type punishments.

Verdict: Borrow

It turns out that a talking Horse is way less interesting than almost any other talking animal. I was bored during the start of the book, drawn in for a bit, and then totally turned off by the religious part and the tidy ending. There were good parts of the story but I would have rather seen them in a different story.

I’ll be taking the rest of the year off and then will be back in January with the last five books of the project! Betsy-Tacy is likely to be one of the titles that made it onto the list because of nostalgia but I’m hoping it’s good anyway.

*****
Schedule – December through March
December 31 – Winter Break
January 15 – #52 Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace (1940)
January 31 – #51 The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo (2003)
February 15 – #91 Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren (1950)
February 28 – #8 Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (1908)
March 15 – #1 Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (1952)
March 31 – Project Wrap-Up!