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Madeline’s Rescue and the Question of Audience

This is the third of a continuing series of articles celebrating the history of the Caldecott Medal, which marks its seventy-fifth anniversary this year. Librarian and children’s literature historian Kathleen T. Horning will look at one seminal but unheralded Caldecott  book of each decade — identifying trends and misconceptions, noting the changing nature of the picture book, wrestling with issues and definitions. Here she examines the 1954 winner, Ludwig Bemelmans’s Madeline’s Rescue (Viking), with particular attention to the perennial question of audience.

madeline's rescue“Who is this book for?” is a common question asked of a book that wins the Caldecott Medal. Those who ask it generally already have their own answer in mind: adults. That the Caldecott Medal winners often appeal more to adults’ aesthetic tastes than to children’s is a frequent complaint. Even the most well-informed purveyors of children’s books are often surprised to learn that the ALSC definition of “child audience” extends through age fourteen, even for the Caldecott Medal. From the beginning of the Caldecott Award, the same definition has been used: “Children are defined as persons of ages up to and including fourteen and picture books for this entire age range are to be considered.” But when it comes to art appreciation, fourteen-year-olds may have more in common with their preschool-aged siblings than with their parents, so the question remains: how does a group of fifteen adults select the most distinguished art in a book published for a child audience?

Madeline’s Rescue provides an excellent example of the challenges adults face when it comes to the question of audience for Caldecott Medal contenders. Much of the challenge in this particular case rests with the book’s creator, who never considered himself either an author or an illustrator of children’s books. Ludwig Bemelmans, in fact, went to great lengths to keep himself from being viewed as such. Artist, satirist, socialite, restaurateur, man about town — even in his lifetime, Bemelmans had to face a bitter career reality: he would be best remembered as the creator of Madeline, a literary heroine from a children’s picture book.

Bemelmans was something of a character himself. Born in Meran, Austria-Hungary (now part of Italy), in 1898, he was a poor student, failing out of or being expelled from every school he was sent to. He left school for good as a young teenager and was sent to learn the restaurant and hotel business from his uncle, Hans Bemelmans, who owned several resort hotels in the Tyrolean region of Austria. When he was sixteen, he committed an offense so egregious that he was given a choice to either attend reform school in Austria or be shipped off to America. He chose the latter.

Apparently he had learned something from his time working in his uncle’s business, because he immediately got a job at the Ritz Hotel in New York City, where he quickly worked his way up from busboy to assistant manager. He chronicled these years by sketching the staff and customers, and by writing satirical pieces set at the “Hotel Splendide.” Over the years, his humorous autobiographical essays were published regularly in the New Yorker, and Bemelmans became a celebrity in a job that allowed him to hold court at a table surrounded by people who enjoyed bantering with him.

Although he was untrained as an artist, Bemelmans loved to draw, and he would draw anywhere — on menus, on tablecloths, on walls. He dreamed of being a cartoonist, but after an unsuccessful run of his comic strip “The Thrilling Adventures of Count Bric a Brac” (canceled by the New York World due to reader complaints), he turned his focus to magazine publishing — cover art, social satire, and humorous travelogues.

In the early 1930s, a mutual friend arranged for Bemelmans to host a dinner party that included the illustrious children’s book editor at Viking Press, May Massee; and nearly every biographical account of Bemelmans describes this propitious encounter. Massee was especially impressed by the window shades in the dreary apartment: Bemelmans had painted Tyrolean mountain scenes on them to give himself a view comparable to what he remembered from his childhood. On Massee’s urging, he created his first picture book, Hansi (Viking, 1934), based on his boyhood in Austria. The book was well reviewed, leading to another contract with Viking for The Golden Basket, an illustrated novel about two English sisters staying at an inn in Bruges, Belgium. Although The Golden Basket won a Newbery Honor in 1937, it is most memorable for the first published appearance of a character who would come to define Bemelmans’s career. As the sisters tour the city with their father, they observe twelve girls with their teacher, Madame Severine. “The little girls wore dark blue dresses with white collars and cuffs, red belts, bow ties, and white straw hats with red ribbons.” Although Bemelmans includes only two illustrations depicting this encounter, they are clearly the same girls who ended up in Paris a few years later. And in case there was any doubt: “The name of the smallest girl is Madeleine. Her hair is  copper-red…” As the twelve girls walk, two by two, in their straight lines, Madeleine skips and hops at the rear, sliding her white-gloved finger along the grooves in buildings, saying,  “Boo-boo-boo.”

Here Bemelmans was recalling his own mother’s stories of her childhood in convent schools where the girls, all dressed identically, walked in two straight lines. The character got her
name from Bemelmans’s wife, Madeleine Freund, whom he had married a few years earlier. And after their daughter, Barbara, was born in 1936, Bemelmans was inspired to write a whole story about Madeline, changing the spelling of her name to allow for easier
rhyming. According to Bemelmans, he first wrote the story that became the book Madeline on the back of a menu at Pete’s Tavern in Gramercy Park. He sketched the first illustrations in a street café in Paris.

Since May Massee had published the first four books he wrote for children (a fifth book he illustrated was written by Munro Leaf and published by Frederick A. Stokes), it was only natural that Bemelmans would take Madeline to her first. Surprisingly, Massee rejected it, saying that it was not appropriate for children. Whether she felt it was too sophisticated or too cartoonish is open to speculation; both scenarios have been widely reported. But an article that appeared in Publishers Weekly on October 22, 1938, “The Humor of Ludwig Bemelmans,” offers another possibility: “The only quarrel he ever has with May Massee, he says, arises because he usually tries to persuade her that children’s books should be three feet square, a notion that she is scarcely able to accept, considering production problems and the necessity, after all, for placing books on shelves in bookshops, libraries and homes.” It could be simply that Massee felt Madeline, with its large size and eight pages of full-color art, would be too expensive for Viking to produce.

Although Bemelmans liked to exaggerate the difficulty he had finding a publisher for Madeline — his Newsweek obituary quoted him as saying it languished in a drawer for five years before he could get anyone to take it — Simon & Schuster picked it up as soon as Viking rejected it and published it in September 1939. The book was an immediate hit. Anne T. Eaton raved about it in her New York Times review, saying that Bemelmans had put “an authentic Paris within the covers of this book” and recommending it “for children 6–8, and for readers of any age who love Paris.” Josephine Smith, in her Junior Libraries review, also remarked on the Paris scenes, concluding, “If children have a chance to see it, they will like it. So far, the adults seem to have been enjoying this story.” May Lamberton Becker, reviewing Madeline for the New York Herald Tribune, noted that “Madeline has appeared to great applause in a stylish magazine for grown-ups.”

Said “stylish magazine for grown-ups” was Life, where Madeline was excerpted in the September 4, 1939, edition, just before the book was published. In fact it became a regular practice of Bemelmans to publish his children’s books in magazines for adults (including Good Housekeeping, McCall’s, and Town and Country) prior to their appearance in book form. In a 1949 letter to May Massee cited by Bemelmans’s biographer, Jackie Fisher Eastman, he claimed this benefited the publisher by giving them free printing plates and free advertising.

No matter who the intended audience was, Madeline won a Caldecott Honor in 1940, the third year of the award’s existence, assuring it recognition and approval as a picture book for children. May Massee never went on record as to how she felt about one of “her” authors winning accolades for a book she had rejected and that was published by a rival company. We do know, however, that she published the first sequel to Madeline more than a decade later, and that in two biographical sketches she wrote of Bemelmans in 1954, after he had won the Caldecott Medal for that sequel, Madeline’s Rescue, she made no mention of the original Madeline. Oddly, in her portrait of Bemelmans for The Horn Book, she wrote mostly about his adult books (published by Viking, incidentally), quoting extensively from his most recent effort, Father, Dear Father (1953). Bemelmans, on the other hand, spoke more about Madeline than Madeline’s Rescue in his Caldecott acceptance speech. Four years later, in 1958, Massee quietly bought the rights to Madeline from Simon & Schuster and issued a Viking edition with a slightly smaller trim size than the original edition.

Every contemporary review of Madeline’s Rescue made mention of two things: the enduring popularity of Madeline and the fact that it appealed equally to children and adults. Although critics seemed to agree that the sequel was not quite as good as the original, they noted that it was destined to be just as popular with both audiences. (No one could resist those paintings of Paris.) There was no skepticism about its child appeal; Madeline had proven itself to be popular with young children who were more likely impressed by the irrepressible young heroine’s antics than they were by the watercolor paintings of Parisian landmarks. Winning the 1954 Caldecott Medal sealed Madeline’s Rescue’s fate as a children’s book.

Bemelmans didn’t seem to mind that his books were bought for and appreciated by children, as long as he won the accolades and admiration of their corresponding adults. Although he told people attending the 1954 Newbery–Caldecott banquet that he liked creating art for children because he found them to be “a vast reservoir of impressionists who did very good work themselves, who were clear-eyed and capable of enthusiasm,” elsewhere he was quoted as saying he didn’t create books for children, not consciously. And the fact that he published all of his children’s books first in magazines for adults clearly indicates that he wanted them to reach an adult audience.

Less than two weeks after the formal award celebration conferring the Caldecott Medal on Bemelmans at the Hotel Nicollet in Minneapolis, a curious paragraph appeared in the “People” section of Time magazine. It quoted Bemelmans as saying that Madeline’s Rescue was an allegory about prostitutes: “Actually, the scene is a brothel and Madeline, although I portray her as an innocent tot, is one of the girls. It is all very naughty. Madeline goes out to look for Genevieve, another girl, whom I made a dog in the book. Genevieve has become pregnant and the management of the establishment has turned her out into the street…She has her baby, which in the book is twelve puppies.” Bemelmans pointed out that part of the search for Genevieve took the girls past Oscar Wilde’s tomb, with its “melancholy” epitaph (racy for its time, no doubt), and the squib concludes with a poke at the Caldecott committee: “Then Allegorist Bemelmans proudly displayed the Caldecott Award, which the unsuspecting American Library Association had just bestowed on Madeline [sic] as the best children’s book of the year.”

Deep in the ALA Archives at the University of Illinois is a letter from May Massee to Newbery–Caldecott chair (and Children’s Library Association president) Virginia Haviland dated July 22, 1954, in which Massee assured Haviland that Bemelmans said nothing of the sort. “I never have seen anyone more outraged than Ludwig Bemelmans when he read that piece,” she wrote. “As he said, ‘If I had that kind of mind I never could have written that book.’” Massee claimed that she had to talk Bemelmans out of suing Time (“we realize that it will court its own oblivion and the sooner it is forgotten the better”) and concludes her letter with a paragraph that may have done more harm than good when it came to pacifying the Association leadership: “After the dinner, as a few of us were talking it all over, Ludwig turned to me and said, ‘You were right. It is a dedicated group. I am glad I came.’” This suggests that Bemelmans might not have appreciated the significance of winning the Caldecott Medal and that he had to be talked into coming to accept it in person. And that might easily have been regarded as a far greater slight to the children’s literature establishment than Bemelmans having his fun with Time magazine. Either way, he broke a golden rule of children’s book illustrators: never piss off the Caldecott committee. The insult to children’s librarians and, by extension, children’s literature seems to have “courted its own oblivion,” as was Massee’s wish. But in the end, the children’s librarians got the last laugh: Bemelmans today is remembered largely for his children’s books, specifically those in the Madeline series. No one reads them as allegories. And there is no question but that children are the books’ main audience.

In 1947 Bemelmans and his family took up residence at the Carlyle Hotel in New York City, where they lived for eighteen months while Bemelmans painted a mural in the hotel’s bar. Today the bar is named for him, and you can still see the mural on its walls, done in classic Bemelmans style. There you will find Madeline herself in the mural, along with Miss Clavel and the twelve little girls in two straight lines. How like Bemelmans to paint children’s book characters on the wall of a bar, a place real children rarely frequent. But today, more than sixty years later, nearly any adult in Bemelmans Bar who looks up from a martini or a glass of Chardonnay and sees Madeline on the wall will immediately recognize her as someone they first met in a book they read as…children. Cheers, Madeline! Bravo, Bemelmans!

From the May/June 2013 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For supplemental materials on Madeline’s Rescue, click here.

Kathleen T. Horning About Kathleen T. Horning

Kathleen T. Horning is the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a library of the School of Education, University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is the author of From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books and teaches a popular online course for ALSC on the history of the Newbery and Caldecott medals.

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