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During the years that our three children were growing from babyhood to youth, Madeline was not considered as much a book in our household as it was a language and a way of life. When Maria, our youngest, broke her arm and her brothers were grousing about the tucking up on the sofa and the public allure of her fuschia cast, it seemed perfectly natural to turn to them and say, "Boohoo, we want to have our arms broken, too."
When I was trying to describe Maria's character to a friend long distance, I finally resorted to the simplest way of evoking little girl feistiness: "To the tiger in the zoo / Madeline just said, `Pooh-pooh'." And occasionally all three of my children must tire of my tendency to move through their rooms from time to time in the dark moments after the light has just been turned off, saying softly, "Good night little girls! / Thank the lord you are well / And now go to sleep!" / said Miss Clavel."
I can recite Madeline by heart, as my children know well. But it's likely that, in small chunks, they can recite it, too. In fact, it would not be too much of a stretch to say that most of the people I know know Madeline by heart.
This is curious. Amid a childhood full of children's books, amid glorious pictures and imaginative plots, it is worth wondering why this story is among a handful of books that now-grown children can declaim without a text, that now-grown children invariably buy for their own more than half a century after Ludwig Bemelmans began writing it on the back of a restaurant menu.
Why would three American children who go to a day school, have never visited Paris or worn a uniform, and who are still flummoxed by why Miss Clavel wears a veil be almost instantly and consistently en rapport with twelve little girls in two straight lines being led by their boarding school nurse in flat sailor hats and identical coats through the Place de la Concorde and past Notre Dame?
The answer, I think, can be contained in one word: attitude. And the attitude, of course, belongs to Madeline, "the smallest one." Through the other books—Madeline's Rescue, Madeline's Christmas, Madeline and the Gypsies, Madeline and the Bad Hat, Madeline in London—we never even learn the names of the eleven other girls, who are barely discernible from one another except for variations of hair.
But we know of Madeline all we need to know of anyone's character: that she is utterly fearless and sure of herself, small in stature but large in moxie. Not afraid of mice, of ice, or of teetering on a stone bridge over a river. It's a mistake to stretch childhood associations too far—and also a mistake not to take them seriously enough—but it would not be stretching it too far to say that, for little girls especially, Madeline is a kind of role model. That "pooh-pooh" rang enduringly in the ears of many of us. Translation from the French: Stand back, world. I fear nothing.
The role of gutsy girls in children's literature should never be discounted, from Anne Shirley of the Green Gables series to Jo March in Little Women. When I was a girl, girl characters who were outspoken, smart, strong, and just a bit disobedient were the primary way I found to define and discover myself and all the ways in which I felt different from standard notions of femininity.
But for younger children, the girls in storybooks have, until recently, most often been princesses spinning straw into gold or sleeping their lives away until a prince plants the kiss of true love on their compliant lips. Perhaps the best known exception is Kay Thompson's Eloise, a little girl with untidy hair and manners who lives—and writes on the walls—in the Plaza Hotel.
Truth to tell, I have always found Eloise's chaotic existence and her self-protective little asides about her mother shopping at Bergdorf's a bit pathetic and lonely, a decidedly grown-up version of the madcap child. When I think of Eloise grown up, I think of her with a drinking problem, knocking about from avocation to avocation, unhappily married or unhappily divorced, childless.
When I think of Madeline grown up, I think of her as the French Minister of Culture or the owner of a stupendous couture house, sending her children off to Miss Clavel to be educated. Perhaps they have apprehended all this, but while my children like Eloise, they live Madeline, which makes all the difference.
For those of us who believe that children feel secure with structure, part of the enduring charm of the books surely must be that Madeline's confidence and fearlessness are set within a backdrop of utter safety. While Eloise's nanny, for instance, is always at her wit's end, Miss Clavel is concerned but competent, and life is safe within the "old house in Paris / that was covered with vines."
In their two straight lines the children march predictably through life, with Madeline the admired wild card who reforms the rambunctious Bad Hat and runs away with the gypsies. Even when she has what has become the best known emergency appendectomy in literature, the surgery becomes simultaneously an adventure and a school routine, the kind of combination of the scary and the safe that is alluring when you are trying to become yourself.
It's a combination of the masterly and the simplistic that makes the drawings so successful, too. I hope it would not offend Bemelmans to say that the illustrations are in many ways quite childlike: the simple, almost crude lines of the interiors; the faces with dot eyes and U-shaped mouths; the scribble quality to much of the detail work. The rendering of the Eiffel Tower as a Christmas tree in the holiday Madeline book is wonderful and yet sensible to children, who might well embellish the landmark in exactly the same way.
Rich picture books are wonderful, but when you are little they often make you feel rather incompetent. Madeline is different. Of course the simplicity of the drawings is quite deceptive; the one in which Madeline stands on the bed and shows the other girls her scar alter the appendectomy is perhaps as good a rendering of carriage-as-character as I've ever seen outside of Holbein's portraits. But the best children's illustrators have a good deal of the child in them, and Bemelmans is no exception. "He colors outside the lines," my oldest child said approvingly.
Classics are always ineffable: why does Goodnight Moon appeal for generation after generation, despite changes in mores, manners, technology, and television fare? Why do children as different as Abbott and Costello agree completely about the indispensability of The Cat in the Hat? Why does A Wrinkle in Time speak as clearly to my sons as it did to me three decades ago? What is it that Sendak has that lesser lights just do not?
The answer, I think, is that there are certain books written out of some grown-up's idea of children, of who they are and what they should be like, of what we like to think absorbs and amuses them. And then there are the books that are written for real children by people who manage, however they do it, to maintain an utterly childlike part of their minds. They understand that children prize both security and adventure, both bad behavior and conformity, both connections and independence.
Madeline charms because of rhyme and meter, vivid illustrations and engaging situations. But the Madeline books endure because they understand children and epitomize what they fear, what they desire, and what they hope to be in the person of one little girl. A risk taker. An adventurer. And at the end, a small child drifting off to sleep. "That's all there is—/ there isn't any more."
|Introduction by Anna Quindlen||9|
|Madeline and the Bad Hat||61|
|Madeline and the Gypsies||169|
|Madeline in London||227|
|The Isle of God (or Madeline's Origin)||313|
Posted April 30, 2001
My grandmother introduced my mother to Madeline as a child. My mother read the books to me, and I am now introducing Madeline to my four-year-old daughter. It is a wonderful series to read. The pictures not only entertain, but bring the landmarks of Paris and London into your home. Begin a generation of reading Madeline to your children. Boys will love mischievous Pepito, the Spanish Ambassador's son. The rhymes make the stories easy to memorize for toddlers. My daughter loves to 'read' the stories to her grandmother.
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