I picked up the charming The Story of Diva and Flea from Book Culture while acting out my Kathleen Kelly fantasies in New York. It had been on my list for awhile (because Mo Willems) but with Paris so front-of-mind it felt particularly poignant. At its heart, this story is about making new friends, and how those friends can help you face your fears, but it is also a love letter to Paris.
I love Mo Willems. His characters are exuberant and his sense of humour ranges from slapstick to dead-pan. If the Elephant and Piggie series doesn’t make kids want to read I’m not sure anything will. The latest installment in the Elephant and Piggie early reader series, I Really Like Slop, might be my favourite children’s book title of all time. Willem’s humour is ever-present in this very different story of a stray cat and a pampered dog who become friends, but this is a surprisingly tender and poignant Willems.
Whether they realize it or not, both Diva and Flea are lonely. Diva, a dog who is described as “smaller than a person’s foot” is afraid of feet and therefore never ventures outside her Parisienne courtyard. Flea, a self-described “Flaneur,” fears going indoors, as he has traumatic memories of a broom incident. They eventually become friends and Flea teaches Diva to be a brave like him and Diva teaches Flea that indoors can be nice, especially if there is Breck-fest of Luh-nch.
There is an Oliver & Company* feeling to the story, with a streetwise cat and a pampered dog, but Willems gives these stock characters both depth and warmth. Flea is gentle with Diva and tries not to hurt her feelings. Diva is patient with Flea and generous with her food and person, Eva. Their friendship almost feels like a love story, and Tony DiTerlizzi’s spot illustrations give a sense of a classic French movie, with scenes of manicured gardens, gargoyles, the Eiffel tower and cafe-lined streets.
The consistent use of flaneur as a verb (“Do you see me? I’m flaneur-ing”) will make children giggle, as will the animals’ observations of life. For example, upon seeing people exiting out of metro trains, Flea muses “So that’s where people come from.” Much of the humour comes from the nature of the animals and how they misunderstand each other. In one of my favourite scenes, Diva discovers a dead mouse on her doorstep, a present left by Flea as an apology. By way of thank you, Diva says “That is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me. But, in the future, bring me a small piece of ribbon please.”
In one of the final scenes, Flea teaches Diva how to “meet new Feet.” This sweet scene reminded me of the classic book Catwings, in which the winged kittens are told to seek out “Gentle Hands.” Flea instructs Diva to sit at the feet and say meow (she says woof instead) and wait for the “wondrous thing.” That thing is a pat on the head, which Diva describes as “wondrous indeed.”
This is really more of an early chapter book than a middle grade novel, but I couldn’t resist including it. The Story of Diva and Flea reads like a dream and feels like a classic. Check out the video below of Willems and DiTerlizzi talking about their collaboration.
The Story of Diva and Flea is available now in hardcover from Hyperion.
*I have been waiting my entire career to work in an apt Oliver & Company comp