I had the opportunity to read and review a wonderful little picture book called Unlikely Friends. It is written by David Dilsizian and illustrated Mykyta Harets. I’ve been following David on Instagram for several years because he is a talented singer and often posts videos of his performances. When I learned that he had put out a children’s book about Ella Fitzgerald, one of the great singers of the golden era of jazz music, I was intrigued. I’m a bit of a singer myself, jazz standards being the genre of music I love to sing the most, and Fitzgerald is among my favorite singers.
Unlikely Friends is very short, 14 pages from beginning to end. It tells about one instance in Fitzgerald’s life – when Marilyn Monroe, the most famous female actress of the 1950s, became a fan and helped promote Fitzgerald’s career to the next level. Despite an economy of words, this book is about big themes, such as friendship, being supportive, overcoming racial barriers, and perseverance. Dilsizian relates this story simply, in a way that young children will be able to understand. The illustrations are colorful and are a perfect match for the story.
These days we hear the word “influencer” used a lot. It is well known amongst creatives (artists, musicians, actors, writers, designers) that the way to really get onto the fast track of success is to be discovered by someone who already has a wide following. If a famous actress tweets that she likes a blog, people will follow that blog. If a famous author touts a book by an unknown author, that book will sell copies. If a famous model is photographed in a boutique shop, that shop will get new clients. If a famous singer shares a youtube video of an up-and-coming talent, that kid will get a recording contract.
This isn’t a new phenomenon, even though “influencer” is the current word to describe those people of acclaim generous with their praise and support. It also only works when the person being helped is genuinely talented in their own right. Unlikely Friends is a reminder that “influencers” existed back in the 1950s, and that support from someone with a foot in the door is invaluable. It also makes clear that Ella Fitzgerald was a rising star in her own right before Marilyn Monroe’s help and continued to soar with her talent after this experience.
Personally, I would like to see Dilsizian write more of these stories, each one featuring a different jazz era person of color. Surely there are interesting anecdotal tales about other prominent musicians like Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Billie Holiday, etc. I imagine a classroom set of eight or ten of them to be used in 2nd or 3rd grade classrooms or for elementary school music classes.
I liked Unlikely Friends so much that I asked to interview David Dilsizian for Write and Rewrite.
This is a short story about a pivotal moment in Ella’s career. How did you learn about this important relationship between her and Marilyn?
David: I have been a fan of Marilyn for a very long time. If you read about Marilyn (even a little bit) the name Ella Fitzgerald comes up over and over. She was Marilyn’s favorite singer. Marilyn even tried to mimic Ella’s singing in her movies. So, ironically it was because of Marilyn that I started listening to Ella.
Most children today will have no idea who these two women are. What inspired you to write this book for children?
David: In February of 2016 while shopping at Target, they had a little display of children's books for Black History Month. It was then that I remembered the story about Ella and Marilyn. I thought the story of their friendship was still very relevant. I also thought it would be a great way to introduce these two wonderful women to a new generation.
What do you hope children will take away from this book?
David: I hope they learn that anything is possible, and to stand up for others that are being mistreated.
I know that you are a talented singer and often are singing standard jazz songs. Could you tell a little about why this style of music appeals to you?
David: I think my love for jazz music has slowly evolved over the years. My latest album is all jazz standards. I always thought I would end up working in musical theatre. Through studying theatre I fell in love with old Broadway musicals. Most of the music from the musicals of the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and 60’s went on to become what we now call jazz standards, so it was kind of a natural progression.
Do you have a favorite song recorded by Ella? A favorite movie featuring Marilyn?
David: I love Ella’s version of “Summertime”, her voice is like velvet on that song! My favorite Marilyn movie is Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
A side note: I used to have Gentlemen Prefer Blondes memorized and could do a fairly decent Marilyn impression.
Is this your first book or attempt at writing for children? Did you enjoy it? What were the challenges?
David: I’ve started many books before this, but never finished any of them! I never thought I would write a children’s book. I always thought I would write something more autobiographical. However, I loved creating a children’s book. When creating for children, the sky is the limit to where you can let your creativity take you. My biggest challenge has been figuring out the right marketing campaign. Most people don’t think of children when they think of jazz music and Marilyn Monroe! I’ve had to convince many people that the lessons in this book are universal.
The illustrations by Mykyta Harets are lovely. Was this a project you came up with together or did you hire Mykyta to illustrate for you? How did you two connect?
David: I found Mykyta online, I spent a few months just thinking about this book. I finally wrote it out and did some rough sketches myself. I thought it was something I would do down the road. However, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I knew my sketches weren’t good enough, so I started looking for a professional illustrator. When I saw samples of Mykyta’s work, I knew she would be a perfect fit for this project.
Do you plan to write other stories like this or create a series?
David: Probably not with these characters, but I have thought about writing about other jazz legends.
Yay! I hope you do.
This book is multicultural and speaks to the African American experience of racism the 1950s. I notice that both you and Mykyta have names from other cultures. Would you mind sharing what your heritage is and how it might have factored into writing a book about overcoming racism?
David: My heritage is Armenian. My great grandparents moved here to escape the Armenian genocide, so cultural and racial divide are a large part of my family’s journey. I don’t want to speak for Mykyta, she lives in the Ukraine (where she was born and raised), and to be honest I don’t know much about her heritage.
As far as why I wanted to share the story, I feel like in recent years we as a country have taken several steps backwards in regard to racial relations. I feel like we need to teach the next generation about our mistakes so they can learn from them. If we teach love and acceptance at a young age, hopefully it is something they will take with them throughout their life.
Do you have a website or page where people can learn more about your music or writing?
David: For more information on my music you can find me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/daviddilsizianmusic/
For more on my writing, check out our official Instagram for the book www.instagram.com/unlikely.friends.book
Where can people get a copy of Unlikely Friends?
Please feel free to leave a comment for David Dilsizian or myself below. Do you have any favorite movies stars or singers from the 1950s? Tell us about them!
Oh, and hey! Don't forget that the 3rd and final novel of my Juniper Sawfeather YA fantasy trilogy, Echo of the Cliffs, releases on Tuesday, June 6th. Make sure you preorder your copy before the price goes up! For more info, scroll on down to the previous post, or visit www.dgdriver.com/echo-of-the-cliffs.html
D. G. Driver
Author of Young Adult books Cry of the Sea and Passing Notes.