Tale of Despereaux is just so funny--I felt a bit bad about laughing at some parts of this book, because the subject matter wasn't all just roses and butterflies, but I just couldn't stop myself as I was imagining some of the ridiculous scenes! For example, the queen that dies from a rat falling into her soup and the scream leading up to said death--perfectly described and we could not stop laughing about it! For some reason Kate has a thing for absent/deceased mothers since this is a theme in the other books we've read.
Tale of Despereaux also gets the reader involved in the story. The narrator keeps making side comments to the "reader" about what's going on--even asking us "What do you think?" We are asked to decipher the meaning of tough vocab words like "perfidy" based on context (it means deceitfulness; untrustworthiness). A chapter or two later she even quizzes the reader to see if we remember what perfidy means! We forgot, but it was still fun! Although this sounds really academic and painful, it was done in such a fun and interactive way that kids will be clueless they are learning new things and even the adults will learn something!
On the "scariness" scale, this book was a little more challenging for my 5-year-old because there were several sections where she started freaking out and wondering if Despereaux was going to die. She gets really worried about this stuff, so I'll often have her flip through a book and look at some of the pictures to show her that, yep, the hero is still alive several pages later. We've also been having a lot of conversations about heroes of stories and how they are bound to face difficulties, but rarely die. Not many people like books or movies where they kill of the hero!
Anyway, Tale of Despereaux gets two big thumbs up from our family and you should definitely think about introducing this as a before-bed read for your elementary school-aged children! I also found this great English class website where you can find vocab words and all kinds of goodies for casual discussion with your older child. I'm sure this is a book we'll be reading over and over again!