Traditional Thursday: Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans

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Ludwig Bemelmans’ first picture book in a beloved series, Madeline has been a classic since it was first published in 1939.  Set in twentieth century Paris, the book tells the story of “twelve little girls in two straight lines” the smallest and spunkiest of which is named Madeline.  Despite the girls’ routines, perfect behavior, and feminine dress under the care of the loving Miss Clavel, Madeline still finds room to let her personality shine through in a positive, inspirational manner.

The rhyming carried throughout the book is incredibly engaging, especially when read aloud.  The use of rhyme gives the language a rhythm that is timeless and enjoyable regardless of age.  The opening lines of the book – “In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines lived twelve little girls in two straight lines … the smallest one was Madeline” – are perhaps so memorable due to the creative use of rhyme.

The illustrations in this book are truly captivating.  As a child, I remember loving both the yellow and black images and the splendidly colorful and detailed pictures.  One of my favorite aspects of this book’s illustrations, however, is Madeline’s bright red hair.  It stands out in colored images, emphasizing her spunk and deviation from the crowd.  Perhaps one of my favorite images is Madeline saying “Pooh-pooh” to the tiger at the zoo while her friends cower around Miss Clavel.  Bemelmans also takes his readers on a tour of famous Parisian landmarks through his illustrations.  He even includes a list identifying which pages he features which iconic locations, like the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame.

Left page: The Opera; Right page: The Palace Vendome

One expects this story to be a simple tale of a little girl who is fiery enough to stand up to rodents, winter’s cold, and a ferocious, but mid-way through the narrative, our young heroine’s appendix bursts.  This event was one of the greatest plot twists of my childhood literary experience, to say the least.  I love that Bemelmans was not afraid to address hospitalization – something terrifying regardless of age – amongst discussing small childhood phobias.  He frames the hospital in an uplifting manner that makes it seem safe and interesting to a child.  For example, he describes the pretend rabbit on the ceiling and beautiful nature seen from the window.

What’s perhaps even more inspiring is Madeline’s response to her sudden surgery.  The little girls she lives with enter her hospital room with “solemn” faces, but they are met with something very different.  Post-operation, Madeline is always shown with a confident, content smile on her face.  She shows off her scar on her stomach to eleven attentive little girls.  Her bravery is so encouraging that in the story’s thrilling resolution, all eleven begin crying – they want their appendixes out too!  This ending is not only unexpectedly humorous; it demonstrates how

Reading Madeline was a constant source of joy in my childhood as I admired the character for her unapologetic confidence.  Madeline, despite her size or the obstacles life throws her way, is a leader.  She shows children that it is okay to stand out from a crowd for good – for one’s individualism, personality, and fearlessness.

By Madeline Schmitt

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