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Ludwig Bemelmans introduces little Madeline to the world
on March 22, 2006
I have had several occasions to read "Madeline" over the years, yet had never read anything about her. So learning that she had celebrated her 60th birthday was something of a surprise because I did not think of this first story of that irrepressible little girl as something that was first published on the eve of World War II. But the bigger surprise was learning that "Madeline" was not originally written and published in France, which I had always assumed was the case. That means all of those times I was reading this book and wondering what it would read like in the orignal French, I was completely off the mark. Live and learn.
Ludwig Bemelmans was actually born in 1898 in that part of the Tyrol which is now known as Merano, Italy, and came to the United States in 1914. A painter and illustrator, Bemelmans contributed covers to "The New Yorker," and also started writing fiction. His first children's book, "Hansi," was published in 1934. A world traveler and true cosmopolite, Bemelmans wrote and illustrated "Madeline" in 1939 but had trouble finding a publisher because most editors felt that despite its humorous verse and simple artwork the book was too sophisticated for children (Soon & Schuster originally published the book, although the rest of the series would be published by Viking, Bemelmans usual publisher). Bemelmans named his most popular creation for his wife, Madeleine Freund, whom he had married in 1935. They had a daughter named Barbara, who would provide inspiration for some of the Madeline books.
Thinking that this book was originally written and published in France is a reasonable conclusion given all of the Paris scenes Bemelmans pictures in his book. You have the Eiffel Tower on the cover and in one of the illustrations, the lady feeding the horse is in front of the Paris Opera House, the gendarme chases the jewel thief across the Place Vendome, the wounded soldier is at the Hotel des Invalides, the children visit Notre Dame in the rain and the Gardens at the Luxembourg on the sunny day, they sake in front of the Church of the Sacre Coeur, and the man feeding the birds is in the Tuileries Gardens which face the Louvre. These settings comprise part of the book's enduring charm. I always remember the yellow pages that represent "the old house in Paris that was covered with vines," especially since yellow is also the color of the hats, coats, and often the dresses that the "twelve little girls in two straight lines" wear. Yellow is also the color of Madeline's hair in this one, although that will change in future books. But Bemelmans also takes full advantage of the complete palette when he does the scenes that happen out and about Paris (and children like him because he colors outside the lines, just like they do).
Still, in the end the prime attraction is Madeline, who is the smallest one of the twelve girls. But Madeline "was not afraid of mice," just said "Pooh-pooh" to the tiger in the zoo, and knew how to frighten Miss Clavel more than anybody else. Madeline is smart, says what she thinks, and is she is a bit disobedient that is just another reason to love her. After all, she is part of a literary family of similar young girls that go back to Anne Shirley in the "Anne of Green Gables" books and Jo March in "Little Women" (Age them and I suppose you end up with Scarlett O'Hara). Perhaps not all little girls would be as brave as Madeline when they are rushed out to the hospital in the middle of the night for an emergency appendectomy, but I suspect most young girls would like to think that they would be as brave and that they would show off the scar on their stomach with as much élan as Madeline.