Author Interviews
1:56 am
Fri October 11, 2013

At 75 She's Doing Fine; Kids Still Love Their 'Madeline'

Originally published on Fri October 11, 2013 10:31 am

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.

John Bemelmans Marciano has written and illustrated books like Madeline and the Cats of Rome, Madeline at the White House, Madeline's Tea Party and his latest, Madeline and the Old House in Paris.

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 that 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," says Marciano. "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 sketchbook 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 his grandson now carries on for new generations of young readers.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

A beloved little girl is about to turn 75. She has red hair and wears a big yellow hat with a ribbon down the back. No matter how many years pass, she never, never seems to grow up. Her name is Madeline. And back in 1939 readers were first introduced to her in the children's books of author and artist Ludwig Bemelmans. He eventually wrote a series of stories, each beginning in the same way.

In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines lived 12 little girls in two straight lines. Madeline's adventures continue to this day in new stories by her creator's grandson. John Bemelmans Marciano has written and illustrated books like "Madeline and the Cats of Rome," plus his latest "Madeline and the Old House in Paris," and he joined us to talk about Madeline. Good morning.

JOHN BEMELMANS MARCIANO: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Let's start by getting you to read a bit more from the very first Madeline book written by your grandfather. And I'm looking at a picture of a long dining table with a row of smiling little girls and they're just about to eat their dinner.

MARCIANO: In two straight lines they broke their bread and brushed their teeth and went to bed. They smiled at the good and frowned at the bad and sometimes they were very sad. They left the house at half past nine in two straight lines in rain or shine. The smallest one was Madeline. She was not afraid of mice, she loved winter snow and ice. To the tiger in the zoo, Madline just said pooh pooh.

MONTAGNE: It makes me happy just listening to that. You know, and it's great because the tiger is rearing up with big teeth and Madeline's standing there right in front of it like ha!

MARCIANO: Yeah. I mean, it's one of those things that it just - it's incredible how many kids know that specific line and that specific image.

MONTAGNE: And the word plucky comes to mind. Is that pretty much her?

MARCIANO: Yeah. I think the no fear part, that's the epitome of it and I think that is what appeals to all kids.

MONTAGNE: Before we go further, I have to ask. To set the record straight, this is a boarding school but...

MARCIANO: Yes.

MONTAGNE: ...since parents seem absent, you know, as a kid I for one had this idea that it was something of an orphanage and also that Ms. Clavel...

MARCIANO: Yes.

MONTAGNE: ...who is the woman in charge, I always thought she was a nun.

MARCIANO: Yeah. It's not an orphanage; she's not a nun; and Madeline is not French. Which, you know, and I used to get almost indignant over it, but now these things take on a life of their own and sometimes misperceptions are the stuff of legends.

MONTAGNE: Well, it is a cross cultural thing. Ms. Clavel wears what looks like a nun's habit.

MARCIANO: Right. And if you look at the original, you know, you'll notice also the nurse is wearing what looks like a nun's habit and it's just if a woman was in the workplace she would wear the wimple. And just the idea that kids would be sent away at five to boarding school, which was not at all odd to Madeline's original readers, it just seems complete anathema now.

MONTAGNE: But it doesn't really to kids, because they just get that she's there.

MARCIANO: Yeah. Kids - I mean, you know, idea of a kid being out in the world on their own, kids think they are out in the world on their own, so there isn't really anything strange about it.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. And I think it's really compelling to kids too. There's something really wonderful about no parents around.

MARCIANO: Oh, it's fantastic.

MONTAGNE: And your grandfather, where did he get the idea for Madeline? Who is the model for Madeline?

MARCIANO: Well, he always talked about my mom, his daughter, his wife and his own mother. And my grandmother's name, his wife's name was Madeleine, but it doesn't rhyme with anything, nearly so well as Madeline. So I'm almost positive that that's why he changed that part of it. And he put together this incredible sketchbook called "Your First Trip to Paris" for my mom, and it shows her at the zoo in Paris dressed up in, you know, these beautiful clothes looking exactly like Madeline.

MONTAGNE: Now there your mom would've been a little tiny girl.

MARCIANO: She was tiny. She was just two and a half. She really looks the party. But, really, I think there's almost no doubt that it was mostly based on himself. He was the littlest kid in class. He always felt like an outsider. He was getting into trouble. So I think it was very autobiographical.

MONTAGNE: Well, surely a big part of the Madeline books appeal has to do with how they rhyme. I mean...

MARCIANO: Absolutely. Oh, yeah. And his rhymes are great.

MONTAGNE: They're delightful rhymes.

MARCIANO: Oh, yeah.

MONTAGNE: You know, I'm interested in the fact that your grandfather as I, you know, understand it, English was not his first or even his second language.

MARCIANO: Well, he didn't speak any language without an accent. So I don't know that he really had a first language. He spoke French, basically until he was five, then he moved to Germany until, I think, he was 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.

MONTAGNE: This may have freed him, right, given him a kind of childlike innocence about the language.

MARCIANO: Yeah. I think so. And I can also imagine he must have driven his editors crazy. The second book is "Madeline's Rescue," and he insists on rhyming Genevieve with leaf. And in German it's Geneveef and it's leaf. The v and the f is the same and I can just imagine them saying, you know, no. It does not rhyme in English.

MONTAGNE: Let me just say. I've got the book right here. It's when he's introducing this dog, Genevieve, it says: The new pupil was ever so helpful and clever. The dog loved biscuits, milk, and beef.

MARCIANO: Yep.

MONTAGNE: And they named it Genevieve.

(LAUGHTER)

MARCIANO: There you go.

MONTAGNE: It works.

MARCIANO: Oh, it does. And I think there's something great about inconsistency. It keeps you on your toes as a reader. And I don't see that as a weakness by any stretch. I think it's a great thing about them.

MONTAGNE: It does seem like you had a lot of fun with the rhymes and your rhymes are a little more straightforward. There's one truly wonderful rhyme in the last part of your book "Madeline and the Cats of Rome": Her cat let out a happy meow and now, dear reader, we bid you ciao.

MARCIANO: Thanks.

MONTAGNE: It's magical. Given that Madeline, little as she is...

MARCIANO: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: ...is going on - her 75th birthday is next year - looking at all those years in which generations of kids, and a lot of them girls, just fell in love with Madeline and identified with her, what do you think it is that charms young readers so much about these books, as now an author of them yourself?

MARCIANO: You know, one of the hardest things in the world I think is to figure what is that magic thing that makes kids love a character? And what is charismatic about a fictional character? And I find it now, with my own daughter, so hard to predict. And so I wish I had a really good answer for it. One of the challenges is creating a world that feels both classic, old, but also very present.

MONTAGNE: Well, they always keep their little hats. That's a big start.

MARCIANO: Yeah. You've got to keep the hats. Yeah, you've got to do that.

MONTAGNE: It's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thanks for joining us.

MARCIANO: Oh, it's been such a pleasure to be here.

MONTAGNE: John Bemelmans Marciano is the grandson of Madeline's creator Ludwig Bemelmans. His new book is "Madeline and the Old House in Paris."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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