One-Minute Book Reviews

June 8, 2007

Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read #2: ‘Madeline’

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 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

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Peter Godwin’s ‘When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa
By Peter Godwin

This guide for reading groups was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that wish to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

“In Africa, you do not view death from the auditorium of life, as a spectator, but from the edge of the stage, waiting only for your cue,” Peter Godwin writes in this elegant memoir of the terrors of the nearly 30-year regime of dictator Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. If those words sound melodramatic, consider a few of the facts offered by the author, a former foreign correspondent for BBC TV who grew up in what was then the British colony of Rhodesia. Godwin’s sister and her fiancé were killed in 1978, just before their wedding, when they ran into army ambush during the war for independence. Mugabe later sent hit squads into the countryside to abduct and murder his opponents. The husband of Godwin family friend was forced to drink diesel oil before he was killed. The author’s father was beaten outside his home. A woman had worked for 20 years as the family housekeeper returned soon after her retirement with enforcers and demanded money. As Godwin tried to help his parents stay safe, he uncovered a family secret that he believes helps to explain a question at the heart of his memoir: Amid the terror, why didn’t his parents return to England, where they had lived before settling in Africa?

Questions for Readers

1. The title of When a Crocodile Eats the Sun comes from the belief among some Zulus that a solar eclipse occurs when a “celestial crocodile” eats the sun. [Page 201] Godwin is clearly using the eclipse as a metaphor. At least two kinds of eclipses – personal and national – occur in this memoir. What are the eclipses?

2. Godwin returns to the crocodile when he visits his godmother in a nursing home. She is reading a magazine that has a quote from Winston Churchill, who says, “Appeasement is feeding the crocodile, hoping it will eat you last.” [Page 326] We may assume Churchill was referring to Hitler (the crocodile) and the Munich Pact (the appeasement), which allowed Germany to claim parts of Czechoslovakia. Who is the crocodile in Godwin’s book? How does this image relate to the memoir as a whole?

3. In his memoir Godwin tries to draw parallels between the treatment of whites in Africa and Jews in other parts of the world. How effective were his efforts?

4. When a Crocodile Eats the Sun begins when Godwin gets a call saying that his father has had a heart attack and he needs to fly to Harare, Zimbabwe (formerly Salisbury, Rhodesia). At this point, his sister and her fiancé have already been killed. Godwin often seems to put himself in serious danger to provide aid or comfort to his parents. Do you see him as brave, crazy or something else? Would you have done what he did in the frightening situations in the book? Why or why not?

5. If you have lived in the U.K. or watch the BBC news regularly on cable, you know that the British media cover international events more extensively than their American counterparts do. Godwin seems to be reacting to this when writes: “Africa seldom makes it into the American media; even the venerable New York Times mostly smuggles in its Africa coverage as soft features on slow news days, or six-line bulletins in the news-in-brief section. Yet every single day, newspaper headlines can legitimately announce: ‘Another Five Thousand Africans Die of AIDS.’” [Page 204] Do you agree with Godwin’s comments on Africa and the American media? After reading his book, would you encourage American editors and producers to change their coverage? How?

6. If you agree with Godwin that the American media slight Africa, why do you think this is so? Is it racism, pure and simple, or do other factors come into play?

7. Godwin often suggests that for all the terrors his white parents faced, Mugabe’s despotism hurt black Zimbabweans the most. Do you agree? Why? What cruelties did blacks suffers under his dictatorship?

8. As Mugabe’s stranglehold on Zimbabwe tightened, a group of women from Women of Zimbabwe Arise! (WOZA) were attacked while demonstrating against the regime. “They are middle-aged black ladies – the pillars of society, normally to be found at the Women’s Institute or organizing church teas,” Godwin writes. “Yet here they are, their arms in casts, patches over their eyes, bandages around their heads. And still they are spirited and indignant. This, it seems to me, is true courage.” [Page 224] Does this recall any episodes in American history? Which ones? Would the American women you know, white or black, have the courage to do what those of WOZA did?

9. Flashes of humor appear even in parts of this book that deal with bleak subjects like the AIDS pandemic. At a backpackers’ hangout at Victoria Falls, Godwin sees a huge jar (with one condom in it) that bears the label “AIDS Kills So Don’t Be Silly, Put A Condom on Your Willy.” [Page 107] How do details like this help When a Crocodile Eats the Sun? Without them, might this book be almost too painful to read?

10. “It is sometimes said that the worst thing to happen to Africa was the arrival of the white man,” Godwin writes. “And the second worst was his departure. Colonialism lasted just long enough to destroy much of Africa’s indigenous cultures and traditions, but not long enough to leave behind a durable replacement.” [Page 155] Do you agree or disagree? How did Godwin’s memoir affect your view of this idea?

11. You may have been taught that writers use symbols only in fiction or poetry. This clearly isn’t true (given that the crocodile stands for more than a reptile in this book). The use of symbols, metaphors and other literary devices has become common in works of narrative nonfiction such as When a Crocodile Meets the Sun. For example, rattlesnakes are a recurring motif in Joan Didion’s early books. Have you read other nonfiction books that make effective use of symbols, metaphors or similar literary devices? What are some other symbols or metaphors in Godwin’s book?

12. At least one American university, Michigan State, has given an honorary degree to Robert Mugabe. Apparently the school is reconsidering the award. What would you say to the university administrators?

Vital statistics
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa. By Peter Godwin. Little, Brown, 344 pp., $24.99. First U.S. edition: April 2007.

A review of When a Crocodile Eats the Sun appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews
on June 6, 2007, and is archived with the June posts and in the “Memoirs” category.

Contact the author: Peter Godwin, Author/When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, Hachette Book Group USA, 237 Park Ave., New York, New York 10169. (Yes, publishers do forward the letters.)

Your book group may also want to read:

Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa (Harper Perennial, $14, paperback). By Peter Godwin. Godwin writes about his childhood and the events that preceded those of When a Crocodile Eats the Sun in this earlier memoir.

A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide (Harper Perennial, $14 paperback). By Samantha Power. Godwin tries to forge links between the treatment of whites in Africa and Jews everywhere. You may want to see how Power handles a similar subject in this Pulitzer Prize–winning book, which compares the Nazi atrocities to genocide in Rwanda, Cambodia, Iraq and elsewhere.

“Showing Mugabe the Door.” By Peter Godwin. The New York Times, April 3, 2007, page A21. In this op-ed page article, Godwin provides an update on what’s happened in Zimbabwe since he finished When a Crocodile Eats the Sun. He also explores how the U.S. and other democracies could get rid of Mugabe.

“The Future Is Black.” By Anthony Sattin. The Spectator, March 24, 2007. This is an unusually intelligent and well-written review of When a Crocodile Eats the Sun. (Search the site for “Peter Godwin” to find it.)

For a brief history of the Mugabe era in Zimbabwe, search the free online encyclopedia Wikipedia for “Robert Mugabe.”

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of The Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books that is not influenced by marketing concerns. If this guide helped you, please consider linking from your blog to One-Minute Book Reviews. Thank you for visiting this site.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


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