Madeline is a fearless girl who lives with her eleven friends in a convent (orphanage? girls school?) run by the no-nonsense Miss Clavel. They frolic across across Paris as Madeline shows her independence by standing up to a tiger and walking along a narrow wall across a bridge.
When Madeline cries in the night Miss Clavel knows something is definitely wrong and calls the imminent Dr. Cohn. Her appendix must be removed!
When her friends visit they are at first solemn and scared, only to be relieved when they see toys and candy... and a huge appendectomy scar that Madeline proudly shows off!
Later that night ALL the girls wake Miss Clavel with their crying, wishing that they too could have their appendixes out.
THE BACK STORY
The great part of the story is that it's based on several actual events!
in the summer of 1938 Ludwig Bemelmans, his wife Madeleine and his daughter Barbara took a trip to an island off the coast of France.
While there he somehow managed to ride his bike into the only car on the small island, sending him to a small room in the small local hospital. Above the hospital bed was a medium-sized crack that resembled the shape of a large rabbit. In the adjacent room was a young girl with a manual crank on her bed who had her appendix removed and was being nursed by a nun. From there the pieces just fell into place.
By itself this is a great little piece of insight into an author's creative process and how one of the most recognizable characters in children's literature was born. And if this was all there was to the story it would be all well and good. But there's more. Oh so much more...
EVEN MORE BACK STORY
When Ludwig Bemelmans was just a boy, around the same age as the fictional Madeline, his father abandoned the family and ran off with the child's governess. This meant that Ludwig's mother had to move the family to Germany in 1904 which, if you know anything about early 20th century history, was not a great time for that part of the world.
Ludwig hated school and as a young teenager dropped out to apprentice at a hotel his Uncle owned in Austria. Ludwig loved hotels but apparently hated waiters because he shot and seriously injured one at the hotel. Faced with prison time or deportation to America, he chose emigration.
With minimal skills but ample gun-related anger issues, in 1917 Ludwig joined the U.S. Army which, if you know anything about early 20th century history, was not a great time for that kind of thing either.
In the 1920's he left the military and returned to working in hotels while struggling as an artist and painter. A decade or so later, in his mid-thirties, Ludwig met May Massee, who was the founding head of the juvenile department at Doubleday, and later Viking Press. She helped him publish a couple of his first children's books but rejected his most successful book, Madeline, which was instead published by Simon & Schuster!
With a successful series to his name, Ludwig went on to travel the world, write dozens of children's books, novels, travel books, and even screenplays.
In 1940 he painted a huge mural in The Carlyle hotel's bar in exchange for lodging. This bar was later renamed Bemelmans' Bar and is still there today, with the original murals.
In 1953 he painted the children's dining room on Aristotle Onassis's yacht before buying a bistro in Paris in the shadow of the Notre Dame Cathedral, painting a mural on THAT wall (the bistro, not the cathedral) before selling it two years later.
So sometimes there's more to the story than just the story itself or even the story of how that story became a story.
Which makes Ludwig Bemelmans' story a pretty great story indeed.
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