Top 100 Picture Books Poll Results (#8)
#8: Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans (1939)
99 points (16 votes, #5, #3, #5, #3, #4, #3, #4, #3, #6, #10, #10, #7, #4, #1, #6, #3)
Okay, okay, this book has landed la place premiere spot pretty much because I have gobs of personal childhood nostalgia lumped onto it, but really: it’s a classic, the illustrations still as fresh and sophisticated today as ever, and the text may be a bit clunky-sing-song but sticks in your brain like gum to a shoe (”To the tiger in the zoo / Madeline just said “pooh-pooh!”). The big yellow hat . . . La Tour d’Eiffel . . . that bed with a crank and the oddly triangular Miss Clavel? C’est magnifique! Even better: the illustrations contain a glaring yet easily-missed mistake that children’s book nerds (comme moi) can have fun pointing out to other children’s book nerds (it’s the secret handshake we’ve never come up with). – Brooke Shirts
This wins the Useful Quotes for Moms contest, hands down. Children’s whining can nearly always be met with, “And all the little girls cried, ‘Boohoo, we want to have our appendix out, too!’” and the last thing before exiting a child’s bedroom for the night, “And she turned out the light—and closed the door—that’s all there is—there isn’t any more.” – Faith Brautigam
Finally. The book that explained how awesome appendix scars really are.
The plot according to the publisher reads, " ‘In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines’ lives plucky Madeline with 11 other girls under the care of the kind Miss Clavel. Madeline wakes up in the night with appendicitis and is rushed off to the hospital. The other girls visit Madeline after the operation and see her gifts, her candy, and above all, her scar. That night they all cry, ‘Boohoo, we want to have our appendix out too!’ Bemelmans’s drawings of Paris bring the charm of the city to young readers."
The story’s origins come complete with an automobile accident. According to 100 Best Books for Children, "While cycling in 1938 on the Ile d’Yeu, off the coast of France, Ludwig Bemelmans collided with the only car on the island. Consequently, he spent part of the summer in the local hostpital, where he was placed ‘in a small white carbolicky bed. In the next room was a little girl who had had her appendix out, and on the ceiling over my bed was a crack that, in the varying light of the morning, noon, and evening, looked like a rabbit’." Everything, along with his mother’s stories of going to a convent school, came together.
Not that it was recognized as a classic from day one. The great children’s editor May Massee failed to publish Madeline when she had the chance. Says Minders of Make-Believe, "In a rare lapse in judgment, Massee had declined to publish Bemelman’s Madeline on the grounds that its story of a naughty, strong-willed girl was a wee too ‘sophisticated’ for young readers." This is a brilliant example of why I never wanted to be an editor. Pass on something that happens to go on to become part of the literary canon and suddenly you’re the fool that ignored the goose that laid the golden egg. Who needs the stress? Granted, Massee went on to publish the sequels, but that still means she didn’t give a thumbs up to the original when she could have.
There are many fine and fancy places to visit here in New York, but one of the finer establishments would have to be the Bemelmans Bar. Bemelman painted it himself and the bar’s website has this to say about the arrangement: "Bemelmans transformed the bar with clever, whimsical scenes of Central Park (including picnicking rabbits). Instead of being paid for the art, Bemelmans exchanged his work for a year and a half of accommodations at The Carlyle for himself and his family." I know a couple artists here in town who probably wouldn’t say no to a similar gig.
The history of Madeline website goes even further with the man’s accomplishments: "He was a regular contributor to The New Yorker, Vogue, Holiday, and Town & Country magazines. He painted murals in a bar named for him at the Carlyle Hotel and sold a screenplay to MGM. Austrian-born Bemelmans lived in New York and surrounded himself with a rich variety of people, places, and personalities. At one point, he planned to collaborate on a book with then First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy." This is not surprising. Minders of Make-Believe mentions that Madeline was one of the books read to the Kennedy children when the first family released a series of photographs of themselves at home (Mary Blair’s I Can Fly also got the plug).
Bemelmans bears one similarity to fellow French-speaker Jean de Brunhoff (of Babar fame). Both creators have kept their picture book franchises within the family. While subsequent Babar stories have been written by the author’s son Laurent de Brunhoff, John Bemelmans Marciano (grandson of Ludwig) has created a couple new Madelines, including this year’s Madeline and the Cats of Rome, which is in keeping with his grandfather’s style and tone. He even went so far as to use his grandfather’s pen nibs, so there’s some authenticity for you.
As you might imagine, Madeline is an industry unto herself. As such there is a Madeline website with a veritable plethora of information. And as an added sidenote, there was recently a truly lovely ode to Madeline hidden within the Barbara McClintock too-overlooked beauty Adele and Simon. Find it. Spot it.
By the way, speaking of spotting, you may have read Brooke’s comment up above about the secret Madeline flaw that has been spotted by more than one sharp-eyed observer. Wanna know what it is? Collecting Children’s Books will give you the scoop.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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