The smallest one was Madeline…Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline books


In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines
lived twelve little girls in two straight lines…
the smallest one was Madeline.

Thus begins the saga (in a manner of speaking) of the bold little French schoolgirl, Madeline, and the long suffering headmistress nun, Miss Clavel. Madeline’s brave, pooh-poohing the zoo tiger and playing with mice, sufficiently to be completely nonchalant about showing off her appendicitis scar to her classmates after having been whisked off to the hospital in the middle of the night for emergency surgery. (She’s fine, by the way.) She’s more than slightly impudent, though not as cheeky as Eloise, playing tricks to frighten Miss Clavel, even though one of those pranks in a subsequent book lands her in the drink, only to be pulled from the Seine by a dog. She’s adventurous–taking being carried off by gypsies in stride and even enjoying performing in a circus. I’d guess she’s even more than somewhat admired by those classmates, given they all wake up crying in the night demanding to have their appendixes out too.

Bemelmans wrote five in this series: the first and perhaps best known is Madeline, published in 1939, but he returned some years later to write Madeline’s Rescue, Madeline and the Bad Hat, Madeline and the Gypsies and Madeline in London. I know they’re sixty years old and superseded by nigh onto three generations of children’s books…how many of us out there still harbor a wistful desire to have OUR appendices out too? Given that nearly all the libraries in Michigan still hold Madeline and its sequels, quite a few. The text is brief and repetitive (but then so are many other children’s books!) Bemelmans’ illustrations are little more than colored crude line drawings (but then so are Quentin Blake’s, Jules Feiffer’s and Glen Rounds’, among other illustrators). The setting may be more than slightly perplexing to modern American children: why is Miss Clavel wearing that funny thing on her head? are the girls in an orphanage? (there’s one mention of Madeline’s Papa, but otherwise no real mention of families) but any child who’s grown up in or near a city will appreciate the books, and parents the chance to point out various landmarks in Bemelmans’ illustrations.

I’m not sure how Madeline compares to, say, Knuffle Bunny, but it’s one of those books that I’d be sure to have at least one copy in my library’s collection given Madeline et sequelae have been in print pretty nearly continuously for the entire sixty years since their publication. Long live Madeline! and may poor Miss Clavel get a good night’s sleep in her retirement.

“Good night little girls!
Thank the lord you are well!
and now go to sleep!”
said Miss Clavel.
And she turned out the light–
and closed the door–
and that’s all there is–
There isn’t any more.”

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