The Story of Diva and Flea

divaflea

“…there is always more to discover.”

The Story of Diva and Flea (October 2015, Disney-Hyperion) was virtually guaranteed to be a hit. Author Mo Willems is considered kid lit royalty for his NY Times bestselling PigeonKnuffle Bunny, and Elephant & Piggie series. Illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi is known for his work in The Spiderwick Chronicles, the Wondla series, and his Caldecott Honor-winning illustrations for The Spider and the Fly. But in case anyone was having doubts, I’m here to tell you why this book is one of my favorites of 2015.

Diva and Flea follows the forming of an unlikely friendship in Paris, France. Diva is the pampered pooch of a gardienne living in a beautiful Parisian apartment building, her perfectly trimmed white fur ever-accompanied by a big pink bow and penchant for running at the slightest sense of danger. Flea is a self-proclaimed flaneur, a plucky stray cat who wanders the streets at will, trusting no one but himself.

Though the two don’t initially jive, each begin to see that there is much to learn from one another and ultimately learn that it’s easier to face your fears when you’re together.

This book stands apart for many reasons, not the least of which is its gorgeous illustration. DiTerlizzi captures the magic of Paris in his sweeping lines and delicate attention to detail, showing our four-footed characters next to such iconic sights as the Paris Metro entrance at Abbesses and the Eiffel Tower. DiTerlizzi also has a bit of fun with his artwork, working in subtle jokes and references to past works. I personally loved one page that showed many pairs of human feet walking the streets of Paris–one of which is wearing a Band-Aid to protect the back of her heel from blistering.

Also of note is the fact that Diva and Flea provides a refreshingly well-written story for a genre/age-group that is often neglected. This book is an early reader, which is to say a beginner chapter book with large font, short chapters, and illustrations throughout. Whereas parents often have to rely on overly simplistic and banal stories for this age, Diva and Flea is exceptionally well-written and thoughtful.

Young American readers will benefit from the book’s setting, learning bits and pieces about Paris and broadening their worldview in the process. And the take-away messages about friendship, trust, and courage are ones that we could all benefit to hear.

Oskar and the Eight Blessings

“Oskar, even in bad times, people can be good. You have to look for the blessings.”

Oskar and the Eight Blessings (September 2015, Roaring Book Press) is a poignant picture book that tells the story of Oskar, a Jewish refugee who arrives in New York City on December 24, 1938, a year when Christmas Eve and the seventh day of Hanukkah overlap. Following the horrors of Kristallnacht, Oskar’s parents put him on a boat with nothing but a picture of his American aunt and hopes for a better future. Oskar arrives in New York alone and afraid, and has to walk over one hundred blocks in the cold to get to his aunt’s house.

Though the setting of this story is a somber one, Oskar’s journey is illuminated by the small acts of kindness he encounters throughout his journey. Several strangers, moved by compassion and holiday spirit, help Oskar — giving him mittens to keep his hands warm and bread to ease his aching stomach. Mark Siegel’s gorgeous illustrations, in line with the text, utilize shadow and soft lines to convey the weighty subject matter, and yet brighten the pages with the warmth and light depicted in the faces of those who help Oskar.

Siegel’s depictions of 1930s New York are also captivating in a way that remind me of Mike Curato’s Little Elliot, Big City. As a present-day New Yorker, I feel transported back in time as I read this book. Also of note is a map in the endpages of Oskar that allow the reader to track Oskar’s walk through the city.

While historical children’s books can often come across as either pedantically dry or overly simplistic, Oskar provides the perfect balance of story and historical accuracy to open up a safe space for dialogue with a child. Because the story ends on a happy note, it leaves room for questions and conversations about the Holocaust without succumbing to despair.

In the end, what stands out to me about Oskar and the Eight Blessings is that it is, predominantly, a story about hope. I have seldom seen literature on the Holocaust that leaves the reader with a profound sense of the good that we are capable of as human beings. That Richard and Tanya Simon accomplish this in a children’s picture book is truly astounding.