In the author’s note of his newest picture book, Victor and Hugo, Robert J. Blake indicates that the grand city of Paris itself was the inspiration for his story of two performing dogs and their maestro, who entertain crowds of people along the River Seine.
Paris is a subject Blake knows well. Though he currently lives in Nashville, he once studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, an art school founded in 1904 in the Montparnasse district of Paris. When you wander along the River Seine in Paris, he writes in the author’s note, “you always experience two things—the sound of music and the sight of dogs playing.” What would happen, he wondered, if all the music disappeared? What if two dogs set out to find the music in an attempt to return cheer to the city? These are the questions, fueled by Blake’s own time in Paris, which sparked Victor and Hugo.
The book opens with a crowd of people on a Paris bridge. Maestro plays his accordion for a devoted crowd. His two dogs dance, do backflips, and bark to the music. Maestro looks straight at us readers, warmly inviting us into the story. Some bystanders take a peek at us as well, as if we’re right there on the bridge—including Grumpy Max, who doesn’t do joy in the mornings.
When Grumpy Max grumbles about the lack of magic in the world and throws the dogs a salami, both creatures and Maestro’s accordion fall over the bridge into a junk barge. Maestro asks the pups to retrieve the accordion, and a grand chase through Paris begins. When the accordion ends up stuck in the hole of a tire, off it goes, down the Parisian streets, the dogs ever on its tail. While the chase propels readers forward, page turn after page turn, the music, and all the joy it brought, has left the city.
Blake renders his spreads in textured oil paints you want to reach out and touch, and he knows how to compose a crowded city scene—and there are many—without overwhelming the reader’s eye. The two endearing dogs of the title are all fluff, movement, and joy, as they stubbornly run through town to save the music. Blake’s palette is bright and sunny but grows progressively darker as the dogs end up deep in a subway tunnel. They may have found the accordion, but they howl, assuming they are forever lost under the city streets. (Cue the dramatically crying Parisians above the tunnels, as they listen to the dogs howl, in a spread awash in blue.) When Maestro returns, looking a lot like Father Christmas in spots, the palette brightens for their happy reunion and subsequent joyous march through the city streets. Even Grumpy Max manages a smile.
It’s an over-the-top and madcap plot, almost slapstick in spots. Francophiles, in particular, will enjoy the scenery—all the dappled lights and vibrant energy of Paris, complete with singing dogs.
Julie Danielson, a former school librarian, blogs at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast and writes about picture books for Kirkus Reviews and BookPage. Her first book, Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, was published in 2014.
Tagged: Children & YA