Madeline may be about to celebrate her 75th birthday next year, but the beloved little girl never seems to grow up. After more than seven decades she’s still having adventures donned in her coat and big yellow hat with a ribbon down the back.
Readers were first introduced to Madeline in 1939 by author and artist Ludwig Bemelmans. He would go on to write a series of stories that each began in the same way:
In an old house in Paris
That was covered in vines
Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.
Today, Bemelmans’ grandson carries on the colorful, rhyming legacy.
Throughout, Madeline is a courageous, plucky heroine. Marciano tells NPR’s Renee Montagne that he thinks Madeline’s fearlessness is what appeals most to children. Here’s how Bemelmans introduces Madeline in the first book in the series:
She was not afraid of mice—
She loved winter, snow, and ice
To the tiger in the zoo
Madeline just said, “Pooh-pooh.”
That image of the tiger really sticks with young readers. “It’s incredible how many kids know that specific line and that specific image,” Marciano says.
Over the years there have been some misconceptions about Madeline and the people who inhabit her world. Many readers assume that Madeline lives in an orphanage, and her teacher, Miss Clavel — who wears a headpiece — is a nun.
“It’s not an orphanage, she’s not a nun, and Madeline is not French,” Marciano clarifies. “I used to get almost indignant over it, but these things take on a life of their own and sometimes misperceptions are the stuff of legends.”
In fact, young Madeline attends boarding school — which probably didn’t stick out to Madeline’s original readers — but seems more surprising today. Still, part of the appeal of the books is the sense that Madeline takes care of herself.
“Kids think they are out in the world on their own,” Marciano says. “So there isn’t really anything strange about it.”
There was no one model for Madeline, but all the women in Bemelmans’ life — including his wife, his daughter, and his mother — may have played a role in shaping the spunky character. Bemelmans’ wife was named Madeleine, but “that doesn’t rhyme with anything nearly so well as Madeline,” Marciano says. He created an elaborate sketch book for his daughter (Marciano’s mother) called “Your First Trip to Paris” which depicts a little girl — dressed up exactly like Madeline — visiting the zoo and seeing the sights.
But ultimately, the story of the little girl was actually based on the story of a little boy: Bemelmans himself. “He was the littlest kid in class,” Marciano says. “He always felt like an outsider. He was getting into trouble. So I think it was very autobiographical.”
Bemelmans’ family relocated several times when he was a child and English was not his first language.
“He didn’t speak any language without an accent,” Marciano recalls. “I don’t know that he really had a first language. He spoke French, basically until he was 5, then he moved to Germany until about 13 or 14. And then he moved to America. By the time he was 18 I think he had all three of those languages in his head.”
That led to some surprising and delightful rhymes in his Madeline books.
“He must have driven his editors crazy,” Marciano says — for example in Madeline’s Rescue, he insists on rhyming the words Genevieve and beef. “In German … the v and the f is the same,” Marciano says. “I can just imagine [the editors] saying: No. It does not rhyme in English.”
Bemelmans’ playful couplets keep kids engaged: “I think there’s something great about inconsistency,” Marciano says. “It keeps you on your toes as a reader.”
Marciano has a daughter of his own now, and says it can be hard to predict which books will be a hit.
“One of the hardest things in the world is to figure what is that magic thing that makes kids love a character?” he says.
Whatever it is, it’s a magic that Ludwig Bemelmans mastered, and now his grandson carries on for new generations of young readers.