From an old house in Paris / that was covered with vines / left twelve little girls / in two straight lines.
The opening couplets in Madeline and the Cats of Rome set the tone sought by author John Bemelmans Marciano: almost, but not quite, exactly like his grandfather’s work. The first of Ludwig Bemelmans’s six books about Madeline—the youngest, spunkiest and most flamingly red-headed of those 12 girls—was an instant hit on its publication in 1939. By the time of his death in 1962, Bemelmans had established one of the most enduring and recognizable icons in children’s literature. Three generations of parents have bought 11 million copies. And why not? There are beguiling full-page watercolours of European scenes, beautiful ink drawings and Bemelmans’s skewed but charming rhymes. And then there’s Madeline herself, as adorable as she is mysterious.
Madeline and her 11 unnamed companions live in a way so unfamiliar to her readers—together, without family, overseen by a woman dressed as a nun but addressed as Miss Clavel—she’s still widely thought of as a French orphan. In fact she is an American, complete with parents and the decidedly prosaic surname of Fogg—given to her in a late story, Marciano believes, solely for the sake of the rhyme—who lives in a boarding school. She’s modelled on Marciano’s mother, Barbara. “Grandfather took her to Paris in 1938, when she was 2½,” says Marciano from his home in Brooklyn. “I have photos showing her dressed just like Madeline.” (As for the confusing Miss Clavel, Marciano helpfully explains that Bemelmans’s own mother had gone to a boarding school in Germany run by an order of English nuns.)
Marciano, 38, a self-taught illustrator like his grandfather, never knew Bemelmans, but he was well aware of the perils of taking on a character with a mythology of her own. “I knew that people would really want it to look just like the original,” when he contemplated creating the first new Madeline story in half a century. “And I also knew that was impossible.” Close enough to be a loving tribute, not so close as to be a failed copy, was the aim. So Marciano studied Bemelmans’s drawings to understand the scale he worked in, and used similar ink and pens. He even traced over copies of his grandfather’s work “to get a feel for the number of strokes.”
The plot was no problem. Miss Clavel and the girls go for a spring break in sunny Rome. They take in the Coliseum, the Spanish Steps and fountain after fountain; Madeline, no surprise, leaves the group and gets into trouble; in the end she saves the day, as well as a dozen homeless cats. Marciano had lived for years in Rome: “I loved the city and its light, and I love cats.” (Rome is swarming with them, some 300,000 feral felines. In 2001 the city extended protection to the cats of the Coliseum, Forum and Torre Argentina, by declaring them part of the city’s “bio-heritage.”)
But the style was another matter. Marciano applied the same intense examination to his grandfather’s text as to his art, and found it a far more maddening model to follow. “I spent a lot of time looking at the metre and the rhyme, a lot of time,” he laughs. “Grandfather’s first books were really sloppy, which wasn’t something I thought I could get away with in reviews. So how to do it in his style? In the end, I just went with it—I like the imperfections, they feel alive.” Marciano was quite right in his review prediction: “Awkward syntax and forced rhymes abound,” huffed Publishers Weekly, seemingly unaware that for every exquisite Miss Clavel ran fast and faster / To the scene of the disaster, Bemelmans was capable of a clunker like But Madeline said, ‘Please don’t molest us / Your menagerie does not interest us.’
But a few grumpy critics aside, The Cats of Rome is a hit where it counts. On Madeline fan sites and female book blogs, the response has been enthusiastic. Publisher Penguin Books has printed 150,000 copies, and clearly hopes grandparents and parents with their own fond Madeline memories will pick one up this Christmas. Phyllis Simon, co-owner of Vancouver’s Kidsbooks, thinks that’s a sure thing. “The book has a lot of charm, a lovely look. It hits all the references in a way that resonates with the originals. Anyone who holds Madeline near and dear to their heart will love it.” That emphatically includes Simon. “When I was a kid, I thought she was an orphan. I wanted to be an orphan, because her life looked so interesting.” No writer—or his successor—could ask for more.