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Top 100 Picture Books #47: Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans

#47 Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans (1939)
38 points

What’s not to love about the little girl and her 11 companions who always walk in two lines. – Dudee Chiang

Finally.  The book that explained how awesome appendix scars really are.

Now here is an upset.  A strange strange case indeed.  Until now we have not encountered any books that were previously in the Top 10 of the Top 100 Picture Book List.  Yet here, clear as crystal, is poor little Madeline who has slipped from her previous enviable position at #8 to the strangely low #47.  What has supplanted her?  How has she been forgotten?  Time will tell . . .

The plot according to the publisher reads, ” ‘In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines’ lives plucky Madeline with 11 other girls under the care of the kind Miss Clavel. Madeline wakes up in the night with appendicitis and is rushed off to the hospital. The other girls visit Madeline after the operation and see her gifts, her candy, and above all, her scar. That night they all cry, ‘Boohoo, we want to have our appendix out too!’ Bemelmans’s drawings of Paris bring the charm of the city to young readers.”

The story’s origins come complete with an automobile accident.  According to 100 Best Books for Children, “While cycling in 1938 on the Ile d’Yeu, off the coast of France, Ludwig Bemelmans collided with the only car on the island.  Consequently, he spent part of the summer in the local hostpital, where he was placed ‘in a small white carbolicky bed.  In the next room was a little girl who had had her appendix out, and on the ceiling over my bed was a crack that, in the varying light of the morning, noon, and evening, looked like a rabbit’.”  Everything, along with his mother’s stories of going to a convent school, came together.

Not that it was recognized as a classic from day one.  The great children’s editor May Massee failed to publish Madeline when she had the chance.  Says Minders of Make-Believe, “In a rare lapse in judgment, Massee had declined to publish Bemelman’s Madeline on the grounds that its story of a naughty, strong-willed girl was a wee too ’sophisticated’ for young readers.”  This is a brilliant example of why I never wanted to be an editor.  Pass on something that happens to go on to become part of the literary canon and suddenly you’re the fool that ignored the goose that laid the golden egg.  Who needs the stress?  Granted, Massee went on to publish the sequels, but that still means she didn’t give a thumbs up to the original when she could have.

There are many fine and fancy places to visit here in New York, but one of the finer establishments would have to be the Bemelmans Bar.  Bemelman painted it himself and the bar’s website has this to say about the arrangement: “Bemelmans transformed the bar with clever, whimsical scenes of Central Park (including picnicking rabbits). Instead of being paid for the art, Bemelmans exchanged his work for a year and a half of accommodations at The Carlyle for himself and his family.”  I know a couple artists here in town who probably wouldn’t say no to a similar gig.

The history of Madeline website goes even further with the man’s accomplishments: “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.”  This is not surprising. Minders of Make-Believe mentions that Madeline was one of the books read to the Kennedy children when the first family released a series of photographs of themselves at home (Mary Blair’s I Can Fly also got the plug).

Bemelmans bears one similarity to fellow French-speaker Jean de Brunhoff (of Babar fame).  Both creators have kept their picture book franchises within the family.  While subsequent Babar stories have been written by the author’s son Laurent de Brunhoff, John Bemelmans Marciano (grandson of Ludwig) has created a couple new Madelines, including this year’s Madeline and the Cats of Rome, which is in keeping with his grandfather’s style and tone.  He even went so far as to use his grandfather’s pen nibs, so there’s some authenticity for you.

As you might imagine, Madeline is an industry unto herself.  As such there is a Madeline website with a veritable plethora of information.  And as an added sidenote, there was recently a truly lovely ode to Madeline hidden within the Barbara McClintock too-overlooked beauty Adele and Simon.  Find it.  Spot it.

By the way, speaking of spotting, you may have read Brooke’s comment up above about the secret Madeline flaw that has been spotted by more than one sharp-eyed observer.  Wanna know what it is?  Collecting Children’s Books (written by the brilliant and now departed Peter Sieruta) will give you the scoop.

Did you know there was a Madeline parody coming out this fall? Tis true. It’s written by Rick Walton and illustrated by Nathan Hale a.k.a. Ludworst Bemonster. The name: Frankenstein.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Elle Librarian says:

    While it may have slipped off the poll’s “top 10” list, it’s still in mine. I’m glad to see it get some love – even if it has fallen down the rankings!

  2. And I don’t know if you know this, but you, Betsy, were key to that parody getting published.

    So all of is in the spiny castle thank you…


    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Was I? Indeed I didn’t know! Well now that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Certainly it will join the pantheon of successful parodies out there like Goodnight Goon and Runaway Mummy. We need a term for these books.

  3. Meredith says:

    I’m psyched for Frankenstein. I saw Nathan Hale at a book signing and he had some of the pages of the book. It looks awesome!!!

  4. Benjamin Collinsworth says:

    A term for parodies of picture books? I can only come up with ‘bratire’. There has to be something better.

  5. Benjamin Collinsworth says:

    Unless we’re strictly talking about monster-related spoofs. In that case the natural term is ‘scare-ody.’

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Litire? No . . . no that’s not right. Kidlitire? Worse. Scare-ody is, however, brilliant. I pray it’s occurred before.