A Salute to Ludwig Bemelmans and His Beloved Madeline

Eliza Clark
February 21, 2016

Sophisticated, charming, worldly, free-spirited, mad-cap, clever and simply masterful are a few words to describe Ludwig Bemelmans and his oeuvre. We know him, of course, for his most marvelous Madeline series. But how many of us actually know a thing about Ludwig Bemelmans? As any biographical sketch will tell you, his Austrian childhood was unpromising, to say the least. Abandoned by his father, a drop-out of multiple schools, he was shipped off to America as a young man to keep him out of further trouble. That he was ever discovered as an artist and writer constituted very good fortune indeed (for him and for us), and his books give the impression that he always retained affection for youthful miscreants. The Madeline series is revealing of the man in another way: his wife was named Madeline, and he claimed that the series was based entirely on the exploits of their daughter. But Madeline's adventures were only one piece of this artist's prolific output -- in painting, illustration and writing, for adults as well as children, there is a Bemelmans out there for us still to discover.


We find ourselves double-checking the 1939 copyright on this wonderful tale almost every time we read it. Could it really be from such a different world? It's snappily modern -- the other girls at Miss Clavel's desperately wishing for their own appendectomies after seeing all of the loot in Madeline's hospital room -- at the same time as it's hauntingly historical (the "very sad" girls with the wounded soldier) and charmingly old-fashioned (the doctor dialing DANton-ten-six to reach the nurse). The illustrations of Paris are true masterpieces, and the current editions have a listing at the end telling you which lovely parks and squares and landmarks they depict. The story is funny and charming and quick and lasting. You may have your hands full with however many little ones you already have underfoot, but these are 12 little girls whom you will easily welcome into your home. Don't worry -- they always stay in their two straight lines, remember?

Madeline's Rescue
Bemelmans won the Caldecott Medal in 1953 for this follow-up to the first charmer of the series. Here Madeline's daredevil ways lead her into real trouble, right off the side of a picturesque bridge and into the Seine. Bemelmans did not shy away from danger and drama: "Poor Madeline would now be dead/but for a dog that kept its head/and dragged her safe/from a watery grave." More drama follows when doggie Genevieve, now the girls' darling pet, is expelled from school by a fearsome and ridiculous Board of Trustees. Madeline leads the search for Genevieve across the neighborhoods of Paris, weaving her red-headed little self through more of Bemelmans's beautiful illustrations of Parisian landmarks. But for all of the dark moments in this tale, the ending could not be sunnier, nor doggier!

Madeline and the Bad Hat
Does Madeline need a partner in crime? Apparently so. But first, she must mold his character to her liking. And that's what she does here, in the third volume of the series. When Pepito, son of the Spanish Ambassador, moves in next door, it doesn't take her long to see that he is a "Bad Hat." (It takes one to know one.) Pepito is a reckless show-off (flying kites from the rooftops of Paris is just one of his exploits). Far worse, he also has a penchant for mistreating small animals. Madeline, of course, will have none of that, and Pepito's comeuppance is not a pretty sight. He is saved, in the end, by the promise of friendship - and who would not do whatever it takes to be friends with these charming girls in their two straight lines? Once again, snappy rhymes, one-of-a-kind pictures (here, the animal menagerie is particularly lovely) and plenty of excitement make for a winning story.

Madeline and the Gypsies
Madeline and Pepito, now fast friends, embark on a true adventure in the fourth book of the series. The usually irreproachable Miss Clavel manages to misplace them at a Gypsy Carnival (blame it on the torrential weather!), and the two promptly join the caravan (whether willingly or not is unclear). And what better place for these two brash spirits than a circus? They learn all sorts of new tricks, like "grace and speed/and how to ride the circus steed." How they find their way back to Miss Clavel and their eleven bereft friends is the stuff of the drama, for their new Gypsy Mama naturally wants to keep these darlings for herself. The caravan's travels give Bemelmans a chance to try his hand at painting places as a varied as Fontainbleau, Chartres, Mont-Saint-Michel and the Saint-Lazare train station. What delightful armchair travel during story time!

Madeline in London
Bemelmans had the authorial travel bug once again, it seems, when he penned and illustrated the last of the Madeline series to appear in book form during his life (1961). This time, Miss Clavel and her pupils are off across the Channel to visit Pepito whose father's ambassadorial duties have torn him away from his beloved neighbors. In search of the perfect birthday gift, they bestow a retired horse upon the boy, and a wild ride ensues. Accomplished equestrians from their gypsy days, Madeline and Pepito parade through the streets of London, giving us a pleasing view of Bemelmans's signature cityscapes. Another mad romp, another brush with disaster, another tale that ends with twelve girls tucked in bed, plus one (surprise) more!

Madeline's Christmas
You wouldn't expect any ordinary Christmas story from Ludwig Bemelmans, would you? Don't worry, you won't get one. This tale first appeared as a special insert to the 1956 holiday edition of McCall's magazine, and was slightly adapted to make the book that first appeared in 1985. The look and language are consequently a bit different than in the earlier Madeline stories, but the same free-spirited, matter-of-fact madness is at work. Neither Santa nor any religious theme makes an appearance here, but instead a mysterious rug merchant with magical powers. When he and Madeline get together on the "night before Christmas," only the improbable can ensue: Christmas magic of a very special kind indeed!

Madeline and the Cats of Rome by John Bemelmans Marciano
Madeline's devotees can't get enough! So it was only a matter of time before someone (in this case, Ludwig Bemelmans's grandson) tried his hand at continuing the series. And so, Miss Clavel and her darling dozen are off to Rome. And while every Madeline book has heretofore begun with the line, "In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines," this one starts off: "From an old house in Paris that was covered with vines,/Left twelve little girls in two straight lines./Their bags were packed, their camera stowed;/ They were ready to escape the cold." What a clever salute and also departure from the original! As if to say, this is Madeline, but a new Madeline. The book retains the pleasing rhymes of its predecessors, and Madeline is as fond as ever of stray animals. But in a not unwelcome change, the pictures of lovely monuments are brighter, befitting their Roman setting, and the story a shade lighter. All in all, brava Madeline!

From the Parents

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