It’s a familiar story, even to children. Two people from different walks of life discover an unlikely affection for one another despite their dissimilar lived experiences. More than likely that disparity hinges upon class. The template is rampant in Disney alone and the Lady and the Tramp is an obvious touchstone for Diva and Flea: A Parisian Tale, the children’s picture book from celebrated author Mo Willems (of the Pigeon and Knuffle Bunny series) and Spiderwick Chronicles’ illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi. Diva and Flea are different species – Diva is a terrier while Flea is a felix cat – but this is a surface level deviation in an otherwise similar tale of animal companionship across social boundaries.
Before she meets Flea, Diva knows little of the world beyond the courtyard of her resplendent Parisian apartment building. Soon, however, Flea coaxes her into the streets to experience the surreptitious delights of life as a free spirit – or, because this is Paris, a ‘flâneur’. Diva, meanwhile, instructs Flea in the ways of domesticity, introducing the lifelong scavenger to the concept of prepared meals, provided he can learn to play nice.
A little dry perhaps, but Diva and Flea’s lack of drama is part of its charm. The stakes are purposefully low, establishing the titular friendship as an end in of itself rather than a perfunctory subplot, as is more common in children’s stories. The nature of their relationship isn’t spelled out either, implied instead through expressions; in the anticipation on Flea’s face while bringing Diva to the the Eiffel Tower, for instance. Love, the book suggests, is something malleable and uneasily defined – something understood in a glance.
The book’s love of Paris is less allusive. Its pages are infatuated with the city, from the peppering of French words like ‘avenue’ and ‘gardienne’ to illustrations brimming with intricacies of Parisienne architectural vernacular – even the borders around the titles seem to take their cue from the railings of Luxembourg Gardens. Without resorting to stereotypes, Diva and Flea exudes a foreignness that should capture young imaginations.
Where it falters is in its uncritical implementation of the poor suitor cliché. The use of the term ‘flâneur’ is misplaced here; the ‘flâneur’, according to Walter Benjamin, is a man of leisure while Flea is actually homeless. The choice to depict Flea’s nomadism as a trait of an adventurous personality instead of a necessity of hardship potentially sends kids a wrong impression of the realities of vagrancy.
Even so, Diva and Flea is a well-meaning and enjoyable story about stepping outside one’s comfort zone. Their class-crossing encounter is simplistic but also heartwarmingly straightforward at a time when anxieties about divisions in society are at an all time high.
All images courtesy of Walker Books, who have published Diva and Flea by Mo Willems and Tony DiTerlizzi.
Diva and Flea: A Parisian Tale was published on 2nd February 2017.