In an old house in Paris
that was covered with vines
lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.
— The opening lines of Madeline
Madeline. Story and Pictures by Ludwig Bemelmans. Viking, 48 pp., $7.99, paperback. Also available in other editions. Ages 2 & up.
By Janice Harayda
One of the most delightful characters in children’s literature was born, figuratively speaking, in a saloon. Ludwig Bemelmans (1898–1962) may have gotten the idea for Madeline after a bicycle accident sent him to a French hospital, where a girl in the next room had just had her appendix out. But he wrote the first lines of his most famous book on the back of a menu at Pete’s Tavern in New York: “In an old house in Paris / that was covered with vines …”
Those words set the tone for this brief narrative poem that uses rhyming couplets and a loose anapestic meter to tell the story a fearless girl who attends a convent school near the Cathedral of Notre-Dame and other French landmarks. Madeline is the smallest and bravest of the girls in the care of a nun called Miss (not Sister) Clavel: “To the tiger in the zoo / Madeline just said, ‘Pooh-pooh.’” She makes such a fine adventure of having her appendix out – the central drama of the book – that by the last page her schoolmates are clamoring to have surgery, too.
Madeline was published in 1939 and is one the few picture books of its day that has never fallen from favor. But it has more going for it than nostalgia or its intergenerational appeal. The amusing line drawings are simple yet dynamic. Bemelmans suggests an entire world through his images of 12 girls who are always identically dressed, whether they wear broad-brimmed hats while visiting the Eiffel Tower or muffs while ice-skating near Montmartre. Like Helen Oxenbury’s pictures for We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, his illustrations alternate between color and black- and-white (plus a sunny yellow in Madeline). This technique helps to quicken the pace, so that the 48 pages of text hold the attention of preschoolers used to shorter books. And there’s another reason why Madeline and its five sequels work so well, astutely suggested by Anna Quindlen in her introduction to Mad About Madeline: The Complete Tales (Viking, $35), which contains all the books in the series:
“For those of us who believe that children feel secure with structure, part of the enduring charm of the books must surely be that Madeline’s confidence and fearlessness are set within a backdrop of utter safety,” Quindlen writes. Miss Clavel is “concerned but competent.” If Madeline’s life is regimented, it has an order and predictability that many children long for at a time when the family dinner is becoming a cultural artifact. Madeline and her schoolmates all eat their meals, brush their teeth, and go to bed at the same time. A caged tiger may bare its teeth at the zoo. But as Quindlen rightly notes, “life is safe” in that “old house in Paris / that was covered with vines.”
Best line: The first three, quoted at the top of this review.
Worst line: None. But some parents may prefer to skip two lines on the last page: “Good night, little girls! Thank the Lord you are well!”
Published: 1939 (first Simon & Schuster edition), 2000 (Viking paperback reprint).
Furthermore: A naturalized American citizen, Bemelmans was born in the Austrian Tyrol and moved to the U.S. as a teenager. Madeline www.madeline.com was a Caldecott Honor book, and its first sequel, Madeline’s Rescue, won the Caldecott Medal. More often associated with O. Henry than with Bemelmans, Pete’s Tavern still serves meals at the corner of 18th Street and Irving Place in Manhattan.
You may also want to read: Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read #1, Millions of Cats by Wanda Gág, reviewed on this site on Jan. 5, 2007 http://oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/01/05.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.