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Madeline and Pepito join the Gypsy Carnival
on March 25, 2006
Having seen pages from the orignal version of the earliest adventures of Tintin and American cartoons from before World War II, I am aware that such works could often be racist and contain stereotypes. Hergé went back and redid his offensive artwork and the versions of those cartoons available today have been edited (or censored, if you prefer). So I was interested in charges of perpetuating stereotyping being raised here against a children's book that was written and illustrated by Ludwig Bemelmans in the United States at the time that the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum.
"Madeline and the Gypsies" first appeared, in a shorter version, in "McCall's" in 1958-59. As readers recall from "Madeline and the Bad Hat," next door to the old house in Paris that was covered with vines was the house of the Spanish Ambassador, whose son Pepito was reformed by Madeline (well, actually by a pack of dogs, but Madeline endorsed the whole thing). His parents are gone and Pepito invites the twelve little girls over a Gypsy Carnival. A cloudburst sends everybody home, but when the girls are tucked into bed Miss Clavel discovers that Madeline is missing. This is because at the top of the Ferris Wheel, stuck in the rainstorm, are Pepito and Madeline. He climbs down to get aid and the Gypsy Mama, with the aid of the strong man and the clown, get Madeline to safety.
Explaining that "Gypsies do not like to stay--They only come to go away," the Gypsy Mama gives the drenched children medicine, puts them to bed, and takes Madeline and Pepito with her when the carnival leaves. Now, technically I suppose this IS kidnapping. But there is a long-standing tradition of running away to join the circus (Toby Tyler anyone?) and "Madeline and the Gypsies" is very much in that spirit. The police are never involved and the Gypsies do not engage in criminal behavior (besides spiriting away the children). So I do not see evidence that this book either embraces or endorses the extant stereotype. Of course, if you have any concerns about this subject you are absolutely encouraged to check out the book for yourself before you let your children read it.
Certainly the life that the two children live with the Gypsy Carnival is grand. They do not go to school, and they never have to brush their teeth or go to sleep. The Gypsies teach them grace and speed, not to mention how to ride the circus horse. They even send Miss Clavel a postcard (their spelling is atrocious), which is how she knows where to go when she moves fast and faster to the scene of this book's disaster. When the adventure is over everybody says goodbye and then everybody goes home. I suppose you could think that when Madeline is cleaned up back at the old house that the implication is that Gypsies are dirty rather than clean, but as a general rule kids tend to be dirty rather than clean. Maybe offense is in the eyes of the beholder here, but at the very least I can argue that "Madeline and the Gypsies" is not an overt example of racism or stereotyping. Certainly such things can be discussed with young readers, who may not be as familiar with this particular stereotype as we were when we were the age of Madeline and Pepito.
Once again Bemelmans makes use of familiar Paris landmarks, namely Notre-Dame and Gare Saint-Lazare. But because there is some traveling involved this time around we also get to see Chateau de Fontainebleau, the Cathedral at Chartes, Mont-Saint-Michel, a Normandy farm, and the seacoast at Deauville. Actually, the artwork that stands out in this book is the second to last page, which shows the twelve little girls bouncing off of their beds. It is not unusual that the girls are not tucked away in their beds, but seeing the scene in full color for the first time in the series in this fourth book instead of the usual yellow page is sort of odd (but Bemelmans does revert to the traditional tinting for the final page).