despereaux Roscuro in the Queen’s soup.

The Tale of Despereaux

Interest Level: Grades 3 – 5
Reading Level: 4.7
Genre: Fairy Tale, Fantasy

The Role of Soup in the Tale of Despereaux

“There ain’t a body, be it mouse or man, that ain’t made better by a little soup.”
-Kate DiCamillo, the Tale of Despereaux

Soup touches every character’s life in Despereaux. According to my Kindle App, the word “soup” is mentioned more than 84 times. Chapter 21 begins with the words (in all capital letters) “THE QUEEN LOVED SOUP.” It is soup the royal family is enjoying when Roscuro the rat falls into the queen’s soup, the shock causing a fatal heart attack. “There’s a rat in my soup!” were the queen’s final words. It is the memory of this soup, and the broken heart of the king, that causes the king to ban soup, spoons, and kettles for the entire kingdom (as well as outlaw rats). Gregory, the jailer, points to the pile of kettles, bowls, and spoons as a “monument to the foolishness of love” when meeting Despereaux in the dungeon. When the king’s men are collecting the illegal kitchenware, Mig’s “uncle” declares to the king’s men that he owns Mig. Owning a person is also against the law, so the “uncle” must surrender Mig to the king’s men. It is upon the wagon that confiscates the spoons, bowls, and kettles, which Mig rides on her way to work in the castle. Mig’s father ends up in jail clutching the red tablecloth that he sold his daughter for. When Roscuro sees the tablecloth glow red from the open jail door, he cements his craving for light which leads him to leave the dungeon and end up in the queen’s soup. It is also the first time he sees the princess.

The morning of the princess’s kidnapping, she is dreaming of her mother and tasting her soup. The King and cook are having similar dreams. The cook, against the law of the king, cooks a pot of the queen’s favorite soup. She feeds the soup to Despereaux which strengthens him morally and physically. He descends into the dungeon to save the princess. The princess tempts Roscuro to lead them out of the dungeon, promising him a bowl of soup in the banquet hall. Because he can now go as he wishes to the light, he tells the princess about the prisoner who formally owned a red tablecloth. Mig’s father is so grateful to be released that he treats Mig like a princess for the rest of his life. The final scene of the book has all of the characters, formally enemies, eating the outlawed soup together in the banquet hall.

Metaphorically, soup is all that is comforting and good. It is the loving memory of a wife and mother. It is strength and sustenance. It is encouragement to the desperate, to Despareaux.

Here’s a recipe for chicken, garlic, and watercress soup that may have been similar to the kind in which Roscuro found himself. I have modified from I think the queen would approve.
• 1 cup of shredded, cooked chicken
• 3 heads of garlic
• 2 pieces of bacon, plus 2 more
• 2 leeks, cleaned and cut in a medium dice
• 1 large white onion, medium dice
• 2 celery, medium dice
• Bay leaf
• 2 1/2 cups homemade chicken stock
• 1 cup watercress, chopped
• Olive oil
• Kosher salt
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Cut the top off of the garlic heads, leaving the heads intact and exposing a bit of the cloves. Place garlic in the middle of a piece of tin foil and drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Now, pull the sides of the foil up and seal the package. Put in the oven and let cook for about 40 minutes, until the garlic is very fragrant, soft and a little brown. Let cool, then slip the cloves out of the husk and reserve in a bowl. This can be done a day ahead.
3. In a large, heavy bottom pot, render the fat from the bacon over medium heat.
4. Add onions and celery and sauté until soft, about 7 minutes. You may need to add a touch of olive oil.
5. Add the leeks and season with salt. Sauté until they are soft.
6. Pour in the chicken stock. You will need enough to just cover the vegetables. Allow to simmer for about 10 minutes. In the last few minutes, add the watercress.
7. Cut the remaining two pieces of bacon into ½ “pieces and sauté until crisp. Remove from the pan and drain on paper towels.
8. Remove the bacon and bay leaf, add the roasted garlic and puree with an immersion blender or in a food processor. (Optional- pass it through a china cap for a more velvety consistency.) Stir in the shredded chicken. Taste for seasoning and serve the soup topped with the crispy bacon. Enjoy!



Island of the Blue Dolphins
By Scott O’Dell
Interest Level: 6-8
Grade Level Equivalent: 5.5
Age: 11-13
Genre: Adventure, Classics

Island of the Blue Dophins is based on a true story of a Native girl named Karana who was abandoned on one of the Channel Islands off of southern California. The story begins when a Russian ship enters the bay where her village lies. In it, is a Russian Captain, Orlov, and his crew of Aleuts. The Russians bargain for the right to hunt the otters, at which the Aleuts excel. Captain Orlov tries to leave with the otter pelts but without paying the chief their agreed sum. Captain Orlov “spoke to his Aleuts.” (p. 22) Karana, his daughter, does not know who struck who first, but her father ends up on the ground with blood on his face. The others get involved in the fight with Captain Orlov returning to the boat to get more Aleuts to fight. The Chief is killed. “Looking at his body, I knew that he should not have given Captain Orlov his secret name…this had so weakened him that he had not lived through the fight with the Aleuts and the dishonest Russian.” (p. 24)

Such is the account of the mendacious Captain Orlov. Yet, most reviewers blame the Aleuts for the violence and betrayal of the Native islanders in this book. I find this both inconsistent to the book and historically inaccurate. This review is from and is typical of the ignorance of Aleut history and culture by those reviewing the book.

“Captain Orlov is the leader of the Russian hunters who come to the Island of the Blue Dolphins to hunt for otters. He’s a shifty guy who promises that he has come in peace, but in the end, he betrays Chief Chowig. He represents the violent and treacherous aspects ways of the Aleutian culture.” (

First, Captain Orlov is Russian, not Aleut. Next, in 1853, when this book was based, Aleuts were slaves of the Russians. The Russians were ruthless in enforcing their way on the Aleut people. In one case, when the Aleuts disputed the way they were being treated, the Russians slaughtered two entire villages. They were also known to line the Aleuts up to see how many people one bullet would pierce. This next excerpt is taken from Southwest Alaska 1743-1867 Era of Russian Violence Alaska’s Past – Regional Perspectives:

”Few Russians who could have gone wished to go to the remote and dangerous fur trading outposts on the eastern frontier of their country. As a result, fur trading companies used the Aleuts as slaves or serfs. At first, all of the men in each Aleut village were forced to hunt for the Russians. Then, because when all of the men were away and no one hunted for food, starvation resulted. Later, because of this, only half of the men in each village were forced to hunt furs in any one year. Aleuts were taken away from their islands to hunt in other parts of Alaska and as far south as California. They were also occasionally “rented” to other Euroamerican fur seekers.” ( The most famous Aleut brought down from Alaska to hunt and then murdered for his Russian Orthodox faith is St. Peter the Aleut. (

We can conclude, by both the actual passage written by Scott O’Dell, and by history, that the betrayal was firmly on Captain Orlov’s shoulders. The Aleuts were not involved in the negotiations for the otter pelts. The Aleuts had no choice but to obey the Captain when he told them to take the pelts to the boat and fight the islanders. To disobey would mean their own deaths and, by lack of payment to their families, their families’ death by starvation as well.


O’Dell, S. (1960). Island of the Blue Dolphins. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

monster house

Monster House
Rated: PG rating: 9+

DJ lives across the street from a creepy house and angry neighbor, Mr. Nebbercracker who shouts, “You kids get off my lawn!!” While shaking DJ, Mr. Nebbercracker dies on top of him. The empty house begins calling DJ. No one believes him. Not the Babysitter who has let a drunken drummer into the house. And not the cops until they get swallowed up by the house and disappear. Locked in the back of the squad car, DJ, Chowder, and Jenny are next. They will be swallowed up by the house as well.

This is a horror movie disguised as a children’s cartoon. It had several disturbing scenes in it. First, Bones, the drummer and babysitter’s boyfriend, is drinking bottle after bottle of beer and getting mean. First, he disembowels DJ’s favorite stuffed animal. Next, he tries to get sexual with the babysitter, Z, while she shouts No, No, get off me. I thought, are they going to show a rape on a kid’s cartoon? She kicks him out and he stumbles drunkenly over to the monster house and is swallowed. Next, we find in the house, the obese wife of Nebbercracker encased in cement. The cement breaks away revealing Mrs. Nebberbocker’s skeleton. The house itself is very scary. Inside the front door is a green hole which swallows people. Above the hole is a red dangling thing. Chowder asks Jenny, What is that? She says, I think it’s a uvula. Oh, Chowder says, I didn’t know it was a girl house. Really? Is that an appropriate joke for a kid movie? Of course, I had to explain that to my 11 year old. Both of my boys, 11 and 13, were uncomfortable with the movie. My older son explained that in violent movies like Lord of the Rings, there is a bad guy and a good guy. The good guys always defeat the bad guys and the movie is enjoyable. In Monster House, the House is bad and Mr. Nebbercracker is bad until you find out that the house is Mrs. Nebbercracker’s trapped spirit and Mr. Nebbercracker is trying to protect her. In the end, they have to destroy the house to set Mrs. Nebbercracker’s spirit free. So, we are left with a guy killing his wife as a good thing.

Monster House is a disturbing movie overall. I would have rated this PG13, avoided the movie, and avoided the nightmares that followed for my 11 year old.

PG13 rating: 11+

Bilbo Baggins is a reluctant adventurer in this 3 hour movie. Gandoph the Gray, the wizard, comes to Baggins’ house in the Shire to propose an adventure. Baggins refuses, saying he likes his routine, his house, and his mother’s dishes. Gandoph marks his house so that it can be found by the 13 dwarves that make up the team to slay the dragon and take back the gold and their kingdom. The dwarves upset everything that is Baggins. They eat all of his food, drink all of his ale, and throw his mother’s dishes around while singing a rowdy song. Upset, he refuses to go. It is not until after the dwarfs leave on their journey that Baggins realizes he just passed up a journey of a lifetime. He grabs his bag and hustles after them. Baggins slowly finds his inner courage and is eventually proclaimed a member of the team by the Dwarf King.

Common Sense Media seems to think that this movie is more kid oriented than the Lord of the Rings film. But, make no mistake, there is plenty of violence in this movie. We counted one hand cut off, 2 decapitations, and gratuitous orc slaughtering. But unlike LotR, none of Gandolph’s team dies in this epic. We had just settled down for the grand finale when the movie ended! A trip to the wiki finds that this is a trilogy. I enjoyed this movie, especially the riddle contest between Baggins and Precious. I think that 6 more hours of this story is in my future.


The Black Pearl by Scott O’Dell

Genre: Adventure

Interest Level: Grades 6 – 8
Grade level Equivalent: 5.3

This black pearl story has nothing to do with Pirates of the Caribbean, to my son’s disappointment. In the Black Pearl, Ramon Salazar just turned 16. This is the age that his father agreed to take him into the pearling business. Ramon’s dream is to find the ‘Pearl of Heaven.” This pearl will be enormous, perfect, and would buy a whole fleet of boats. He finds it in the dreaded Manta Diablo’s cave. This enormous manta ray haunts Ramon. Not even the donation of the Pearl of Heaven to the church can rid Ramon of the curse that the pearl has brought his family.

This Newbery Award book is written by Scott O’Dell, who wrote another Newbery book, the Islands of the Blue Dolphins. The first thing I noticed about this book is the disconnect between the story and the cover art. Ramon is clearly Latino. Yet, the boy on the cover is clearly not. He is light haired, light eyed, and fair skinned. He certainly would not be that light in his line of work of hunting for pearls and being on the deck of a boat for days at a time. The cover I found above is much more representative of the story. Culturally interesting is the formality between his father and himself. It is a great honor to be brought into the business and knowing that his financial future is secure. Ramon is very careful in his words, calling his father, Sir. His father is clear that Ramon must earn a place on his boat. In contrast, my 80 year old father yelled at me to “get my ass off the couch and help him fix his computer.” I, in turn, told him to “get his own ass off the couch, get down to the senior center, and take a class on how to work his iPad.” My husband, whose relationships with our sons and his father are more like Ramon’s, just shakes his head and walks away. This is a great adventure story and would be enjoyed by kids fifth grade and higher.

O’Dell, S. (1967). The black pearl. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Breaking Stalins Nose

Breaking Stalin’s Nose, by Eugene Yelchin

Historical Fiction Rating: 12+

Tomorrow is a big day for Sasha Zaichik. It is a day he has been waiting for his entire life. Tomorrow he will become a Young Pioneer in the Communist Party. He goes to bed knowing that tomorrow his dad will tie on his red scarf and will be proud of him. He even writes a letter to Stalin, thanking him for his wonderful childhood. In the middle of the night, a doorbell rings 5 times. 5 times means that someone is ringing for them, not the other 12 families living in that apartment. The secret police come and take his dad to the infamous Lubyanka Prison. As the next day unfolds at school, Sasha loses his blinders to what the Communist Party is doing. Family members turn in each other as do schoolmates, clawing to be the last one not being sent to prison or executed.

This is a heavy subject told in the voice of a child. The author’s family lived through Joseph Stalin’s years of Terror. After the author immigrated to California, he realized that many didn’t know of that over 20 million murders were committed by Joseph Stalin. It is simply written but illustrates a difficult subject to describe. How far will people go to save themselves? Would you turn in your wife, the mother of your only son, if you were threatened by the State? Sasha is ten years old. Most 10 year olds probably wouldn’t understand what is not being said in the book, nor could they discuss the politics of what was happening. I agree with common sense media that waiting until age 12 would make a more profound impact on a child.

Yelchin, E. (2011). Breaking Stalin’s nose. New York: Henry Holt.

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