What Children’s Books Teach Us About Race

In the Tale of Despereaux, Kate DiCamillo tackles powerful themes such as power, conformity, and race. One of the key issues that concerns me is how rats are persecuted and confined to the underworld of society, and how their plight mimics the globalized oppression of people of color, specifically the African diaspora in the United States. There is a critical ideological element that governing bodies utilize to differentiate and categorize civilized bodies from non-civilized bodies, informing the way in which foreignness/blackness is interrogated, terrorized, and categorized. The rats in the text are symbolic of how prosecuted groups in Western societies are marginalized, thus such groups develop coping mechanisms and strategies to survive. Through systemic exclusion, racism creates “rat nihilism”, paranoia, and anti-self-issues which Roscuro develops as a strategy to cope with rejection from his society.

In the article, “Critical Race Theory Speaks to the Sociology of Mental Health: Mental Health Problems Produced by Racial Stratification,” Tony Brown lays out how racism and racial stratification are intrinsically linked to mental health. The author uses critical race theory in attempts to explain the way in which racism has negatively impacted Black individuals social, economic, political, and family life. This is an approach that is more concerned with placing critical race theory in dialogue with the sociology of mental health, and Brown hypothesizes five mental health issues that can arise because of racism. The problems tied to mental health that Brown identified were nihilistic tendencies, anti-self-issues, suppressed anger and inability to express oneself, delusional denial tendencies, and extreme racial paranoia. The nihilistic tendencies Brown addresses deal with how non-white communities engage in risky behavior, such as getting involved in a gun/knife fight, using alcohol/drugs excessively, or attempting dangerous behavior. The anti-self-issues that point to mental health issues are a Black person feeling estranged from other Black people and wanting to be Caucasian, and go to such lengths as bleaching one’s skin, or trying to be white by adopting white middle class behaviors, etc. The suppressed anger expression behaviors that point to mental health are Black people not expressing their racial views, pretending to be nice to Caucasian to get ahead, holding on to their anger and getting mad at themselves for not vocalizing their feelings. The last category, extreme racial paranoia, focuses solely on Caucasians and how “extreme racism” is a mental health issue and those indicators would be a Caucasian person feeling sick when around Black people, and when Caucasians telling black people to go back to Africa. I believe that these mental health disparities can be mapped over to rats, and how Chiaroscuro negatively responds to his oppression through rat nihilism and anti-self-issues.

In an act of deviance and resistance to rat conditioning, Roscuro makes a proverbial journey to the Kingdom (akin to Icarus journeying to the center of the sun). The sun in this case would be civilization, where the gatekeepers of civilization are not accepting or welcoming of rats. The purpose of Roscuro’s life was to answer his inner calling and inclinations that led him to the upstairs world of civilization, culture, beauty, music, and those things associated with light. Roscuro resisted his conditioning that told him that he was only his environment, and resisted Botticelli’s advice to only aspire to be a rat, whose purpose was confined to darkness/savagery.

Roscuro is unsuccessful in trying to recklessly defy his limitations and he is crushed and after his skirmish that leads to the queen’s death. DiCamillo notes, “In the darkness of the dungeon, he sat in his nest with the spoon atop his head. He set to work fashioning for himself a regal cape made from scrap of the red tablecloth. And as he worked, old one-eared Botticelli Remorso sat next to him swinging his locket back and forth, back and forth, saying, “You see what comes from a rat going upstairs? I hope that you have learned your lesson. Your job in this world is to make others suffer (Dicamillo 120).” The rejection that Roscuro experiences causes him to develop a nihilistic attitude because he cannot go against the prevailing beliefs and attitudes that construct rats as bad/undesirable.

Chiaroscuro’s anti-self-issues manifest early in the text when his self-conception begins to bump heads with his culture’s beliefs. When he gnaws at the rope like he is instructed to by Botticelli, he is apprehended by Gregory the jailer, who admonishes Roscuro and burns off his whispers with a lit match. This flame introduces Roscuro to the light, and radically alters his perception of his limited reality. DiCamillo interjects, “From that moment forward, Roscuro showed an abnormal, inordinate interest in illumination of all sorts. He was always, in the darkness of the dungeon, on the lookout for light, the smallest glimmer, the tiniest shimmer. His rat soul longed inexplicably for it; he began to think that light was the only thing that gave life meaning, and he despaired that there was so little of it to be had (DiCamillo 88).” Roscuro’s destiny is bound up in challenging his environment and the prevailing society’s belief about the status of rats, just as Despereaux challenges his fear-based culture. Roscuro is distinguished from his counterparts in other ways. He uses lofty, eloquent speech unalike his rat counterparts, and he can empathize with the plight of others. When he is addressing the prisoner, who sells his daughter for mere trinkets,

Roscuro is confronted with the man’s prejudice despite his genuine curiosity. Roscuro indignantly interjects, “Come now,” said Roscuro. “Close your eyes. Pretend that I am not a rat. Pretend that I am nothing but a voice in the darkness, A voice that cares. (Dicamillo).” Roscuro wants to overcome and transcend his rat heritage, so that other people can see him for who he truly is, an empathic being who desires to be surrounded by light.

In the end, Roscuro is not able to express his anger outwardly towards those who have humiliated him and caused him suffering. The real target of Roscuro’s anger is the system of oppression that prosecutes the rat community. Instead, he declares to get revenge on Princess Pea, because of the nullifying power of her gaze and its power to vilify, which shatters his sense of self.  

The Tale of Despereaux. Turtleback Books, 2015.

Brown, Tony N. “Critical Race Theory Speaks to the Sociology of Mental Health: Mental Health Problems Produced by Racial Stratification.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior, vol. 44, no. 3, 2003, p. 292., doi:10.2307/1519780.

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