In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines,
lived twelve little girls in two straight lines
They left the house, at half past nine...
The smallest one was Madeline.
So begins Ludwig Bemelmans's beloved children's story, Madeline. First published in 1939, Madeline and all five of its sequels have become classics, spawning toys, games, dolls, and even a motion picture. The original Madeline was named a Caldecott Honor Book, and the first of its sequels, Madeline's Rescue received a Caldecott Medal. What is it about this character that has endeared her to readers for more than 60 years? The answer is—attitude.
Madeline has been described as charmingly impetuous, irrepressible, mischievous, and precocious. She may have been the smallest of the 12 little girls in two straight lines, but she certainly was the feistiest. Wearing their flat sailor hats and identical coats, Madeline's unnamed classmates all look alike except for their hair. But Madeline stands out, not because of the way she looks, but because unlike the other girls, she is utterly fearless. When she boldly tells the tiger in the zoo, "Pooh-pooh," you wonder if what she is really saying is, "I'm not afraid of you or anything else in this world!"
No doubt about it. Madeline is a gutsy little girl, and that's what makes her such a unique role model in a time when storybook princesses defined femininity for girls. Madeline gave young girls a reason to explore who they were as individuals, even if that meant being a tad disobedient. She gave girls the courage to speak their mind and showed them that there was nothing unfeminine about being smart and strong.
Madeline inherited her spunky personality from her creator, Ludwig Bemelmans. Like Madeline, Bemelmans was a free spirit and a man of strong opinions. His list of creative talents was considerable—a novelist, muralist, nonfiction writer, screenwriter, and oil painter. 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.
Bemelmans always considered himself more an artist-illustrator than a writer, and later in life he became a serious painter. His work is on display in the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Museé National d'Art of Paris. That isn't to say he did not take his writing seriously, for he was careful never to insult his young audience. "We are writing for children, but not for idiots," he once stated.
A dashing nonconformist with a footloose lifestyle, Bemelmans took Madeline's readers on whirlwind adventures in Paris, London, and the French countryside. No wonder that Madeline has become a worldwide phenomenon. Fortunately, Bemelmans grandson, John Bemelmans Marciano, a talented writer and artist in his own right, is continuing his grandfather's work in new Madeline books that take the intrepid little girl to Rome and even to the White House in Washington, D.C.