by Ludwig Bemelmans

Simon & Schuster, 1939

54 pages

“In an old house in Paris, covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines . . .” Male or female, you recognize those words, don’t you? They’re the opening to each of Ludwig Bemelmans’ iconic Madeline stories, a series of picture books about a little girl who lives in a Paris boarding school in the early 1900s.

When I first thought of writing about Madeline (and its sequels) for this blog, I second-guessed myself. I try to focus on books that are beautifully written–and, to be honest, I think Bemelmans’ verse leaves much to be desired. His meter is uneven (sometimes distractingly so), his syntax often artificial. Overall, the writing just feels clunky; I can’t think of another way to say it.

Yet, somehow, he manages to sneak in brilliant turns of phrase, memorable and beautiful sequences of lines (like that famous opener), and descriptions that are by turns hilarious, moving, and epigrammatic. His paintings are a tremendous help, no doubt. Full of energy and movement, they capture Madeline’s indomitable spirit–the reason I considered reviewing Bemelmans’ stories to begin with.

Madeline is the spunkiest of spunky heroines, a tiny fearless package of wit, nerve, and initiative. She may be “the smallest one,” but she’s also the bravest and toughest of the group, their guardian Miss Clavel included. She’s the one who pooh-poohs tigers, walks the bridge-rail over the Seine, and keeps the school afloat when everyone else is sick. She is also the social adept of the bunch–clever enough to see past neighbor-boy Pepito’s bravado to his simple need for approval and friendship.

There are several discrete moments in the Madeline stories that I really love, that I think demonstrate precisely why this little girl is so inspiring. First is in the introduction of the first book, where Bemelmans explains that his heroine “was not afraid of mice”: while her fellow students cower in a corner of the kitchen, she goes nose-to-nose with three little mice who have invaded the cook’s domain.

She’s fearless when everyone else is petrified–she doesn’t let the crowd’s mentality determine hers. And she refuses to let her fear get in the way of her curiosity. She wants to get to know those mice, and she’s going to do it, regardless of whether they give her (or everyone else in the building) the willies.

Next is the page where Madeline shows off her appendix scar to her schoolmates. Anna Quindlen, in her introductory essay to Mad About Madeline (a 1993 edition containing all six Madeline stories), calls this moment “as good a rendering of carriage-as-character as I’ve ever seen outside of Holbein’s portraits.”

You don’t have to know anything about Holbein and his paintings to see what Quindlen means. Madeline’s proud yet careless stance is the very embodiment of her “pooh-pooh” attitude. It’s the little-girl equivalent of “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” She knows she’s a survivor, and she knows that surviving is something to celebrate. And I suspect that she also knows the scar will both impress and inspire, will show her schoolmates that a little girl can come through a terrifying experience not much the worse for wear.

Finally, I love her visit with the injured Pepito in Madeline and the Bad Hat. He sits trapped in bandages–the result of some characteristic animal cruelty that backfired terribly. But rather than dissolve into simpering pity, Madeline whispers fiercely, “It serves you right, you horrid brat!”

Turns out, that is precisely what Pepito needs to hear. Cosseted and spoiled by servants, ignored by his parents, he has become the stereotypical rotten rich kid. He needs tough love, and Madeline is the only one with the perception and courage to give it. She cuts through the conventions and taboos surrounding Pepito’s wealth, social status, and gender (not to mention conventions about appropriate feminine behavior, especially at a sickbed) and speaks the truth so he gets the jolt he needs to be a better person.

And that is really where the rubber of inspiration meets the road: when a strong girl or woman understands that sharing her strength doesn’t diminish it–it just creates more strong people who, in turn, inspire others, and so the cycle continues.

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