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Madeline at 80

Ludwig Bemelmans's Madeline turns eighty this year. Instantly identifiable, the character of Madeline is an iconic prototype for picture-book and chapter-book heroes who follows different drummers, always testing boundaries and returning home safely. After Madeline's 1939 publication, Bemelmans published several companion books; other works developed from manuscripts were published after Bemelmans's death in 1962. John Bemelmans Marciano, the author-illustrator's grandson, has continued the character's stories in several picture books and easy readers. 

In my family, we currently have three generations of Madeline readers. As a child, I remained enthralled by the book long after I had graduated to middle-grade fiction. I found Bemelmans’s art breathtakingly beautiful and complete, each page of the book a fully realized scene. Reading the story was like watching a play or looking at paintings in a museum. The epigrammatic poetry of the text spoke directly to a child’s experiences, from the routine (“In two straight lines they broke their bread / and brushed their teeth / and went to bed”) to imaginative observations (“and a crack on the ceiling had the habit / of sometimes looking like a rabbit”). By the time I encountered the book, the story’s setting was long in the past and was as culturally and geographically foreign as could be from my home on Long Island, New York. I would not have used the word sophisticated at the time to describe my impressions of the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, but I think that adjective describes some of the book’s appeal for me.  

Fans of Bemelmans’s most enduring creation may be surprised to learn that his character made a brief appearance in an earlier book published in 1936. The Golden Basket (long out of print until Dover Books reissued it in paperback in 2016) features a brief cameo by Madeleine (the French version of the name).

The Golden Basket is vintage Bemelmans and very much a book of its time and place: Europe in the late 1930s. The text is long and relatively detailed, but the vocabulary and sentence structure aren’t too complex for reading aloud or for independent readers. Some illustrations are black-and-white, while others are in the rich color palette that we associate with Bemelmans. Readers follow the adventures of two sisters visiting the city of Bruges, Belgium, with their father, along the way encountering cultural references, including fountain pens and instructions for making lemon soufflé. 

Madeleine shows up when she and her classmates visit a cathedral in Bruges in the care of their teacher, Madame Severine. She may not be Miss Clavel, but she is “lovely, tall, and never severe,” just like Madeline’s guardian. Madeleine is a redhead, “copper-red” to be specific, and she demonstrates the same kind of irreverence and disregard of rules as her future version does. Her teacher is compelled to remind Madeleine that “young ladies...do not point, not with dirty fingers.” Bemelmans describes Madeleine’s delight at defying norms, notably taking her side: “The little white gloves of her right hand looked fine…They were gray and rusty, with black tips on the fingers and sometimes even fresh paint.” Even the nun in charge of laundry cannot bring herself to dislike Madeleine, “because [she] was the smallest and she was so sweet.”

And after a few pages, Madeleine exits The Golden Basket stage--but apparently not Bemelmans’s imagination. The Madeline of 1939 has relocated to a bigger city, where her story unfolds against Bemelmans’s glorious images of the Place de la Concorde and the Tuileries Garden. Her adventures are more exciting and include consequences more dramatic than paint on white gloves. Although Madeleine of The Golden Basket may seem a bit less relatable today, more tied to her own era, Bemelmans liked her enough to award her with her own book. There she still is today, an indomitable role model for every child who has trouble staying in those two straight lines. 


Emily Schneider

Emily Schneider is a writer and educator living in New York City. She reviews books and contributes essays for the Jewish Book Council and others, and blogs about children's literature at imaginaryelevators.blog.

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