One of my recent projects is that of “deep-reading” (i.e., reading all of) Kate DiCamillo’s work. It has been a helpful and enjoyable practice, particularly as I think through my own writing projects. I like the way her mind works and the themes that make it into her writing. Authors are not always immediately aware of the themes that appear in their work, though readers are often quick to point them out. It appears that even for DiCamillo, this is an ongoing discovery (watch a video of DiCamillo discussing themes in her work).
She is not afraid of engaging real-life issues—tragedies of loss, death, abuse, denial, or even childlessness. For example, The Tiger Rising engages anger, depression, denial, and abandonment without softening it up. For this reason, I’ve seen reader reactions that either applaud DiCamillo’s willingness to write about the reality of the world, or find the book inappropriate and too dark for children. What I enjoyed in this book is not only the very real friendship that develops between Rob and Sistine, but the theme of caging in that which should never be caged—grief over loss and the denial of reality—even a tiger. There are consequences to opening the cage, but it is necessary.
DiCamillo’s work also tends to engage the virtue of questioning the world. I know many parents who love the idea of having children question the world, just so as long as they always end up eventually agreeing with the parent—a happy ending, so to speak. Encouraging a child to think, however, is to encourage independence.
In The Tale of Despereaux, the Mouse Council is disturbed by Despereaux’s willingness—driven by his naturally inquisitive nature—to talk to humans.
‘Something,’ intoned the Most Very Honorable Head Mouse, ‘is wrong with your son. He is not well. This goes beyond his fevers, beyond his large ears and his lack of growth. He is deeply disturbed. His behavior endangers us all. Humans cannot be trusted. We know this to be an indisputable fact. A mouse who consorts with humans, a mouse who would sit right at the foot of a man, a mouse who would allow a human to touch him’—and here, the entire Mouse Council indulged in a collective shiver of disgust—‘cannot be trusted. That is the way of the world, our world.’
Despereaux is the hero because he is willing to question “the way of the world,” even when he is faced with the dungeon and when his future is unclear.
Similarly, in The Magician’s Elephant, a young boy named Peter Duchene is faced with the idea that the world as he knows it may not be true. His life is changed when he asks a fortune teller if his sister is alive—he had been told that she was dead. The fortune teller tells him that the answer will be found by following an elephant. As crazy as it sounds, the fortune teller is right, setting up a series of events that lead to personal revelations for nearly all the characters. Each lives his or her life according to the rules of the world, only to find out that “things are not what they seem, and the truth is forever changing.” That idea is a regular theme throughout the book. Each character has something to question about him or herself and about the way the world works. One of my favorite lines found later in the book sums it up this way:
“We must ask ourselves these questions as often as we dare. How will the world change if we do not question it?”
My reader-response to this comes from my own religious background. The evangelical-fundamentalism of my youth provided a way of looking at the world. It provided a certainty for my faith and gave me a system or narrative for understanding life and truth. It was when I was faced with incremental challenges, entering into my twenties, that I discovered that what I believed was not bulletproof. Over the last two decades, I’ve uncovered the holes and become a very different person—the kind of person with whom the “younger me” would argue. My faith has evolved dramatically, and the Christianity I know is richer. My younger self—if we were in conversation due to some sort of space-time hicup—would have feared for my own eternal destiny.
Coming face to face with the limitations of what we can know, we can either deny those limitations exist, or be willing to question ourselves. Why stay fortified in a belief system that makes no sense of the world? I’m thankful for books that can remind children that it is alright to question the world, as often as we dare, even when everyone else refuses.