They sat not in two straight lines but cross-legged on the floor, boys and girls alike riveted to every word of Madeline's latest adventure.
The reader was John Bemelmans Marciano, the ponytailed 29-year-old grandson of Ludwig Bemelmans, creator of the plucky red-haired convent school moppet whose adventures began 60 years and seven books ago with these immortal lines:
In an old house in Paris
That was covered with vines
Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines . . .
Marciano's audience, about 100 first- and second-graders from Rio Hondo Elementary School had come to Through a Child's Eye bookstore in Downey to hear him read from Madeline's latest escapade, "Madeline in America" (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic Press, $19.95).
The book is the result of serendipity: While researching his just-published biography, "The Life and Art of Madeline's Creator" (Viking), Marciano discovered among his grandfather's sketchbooks an unpolished manuscript and pencil sketches. Although Madeline has always been big with girls, "this book seems to really connect with boys" because of its Texas setting, "with the horses, the cattle, everything big," Marciano said.
The plot: Just before Christmas, a cable arrives in Paris. Madeline's great-grandfather has died in Texas, leaving her his fortune. Madeline, her 11 schoolmates and their teacher, Miss Clavel, fly to Dallas. The inheritance includes a ranch, oil wells and a share of Neiman Marcus, all of which Marciano, who studied art history at Columbia University, has painted lovingly in the primitive Bemelmans style.
Crisscrossing Texas, he photographed and sketched the Alamo, oil fields, the famous King Ranch. For the opening page, he painted the Paris house. "My grandfather drew the house a different way in every book. I just kind of took what I liked from each."
The text, he said, is a compilation of "snippets" from Bemelmans' unfinished work. Marciano admitted he took some liberties: "My grandfather took 16 pages for [Madeline] to get to Texas. That seemed like too much."
Also, he said, "in some places there just wasn't a rhyme," so he'd create one.
After working on the book "for so long in my little dark apartment [in Greenwich Village] and not knowing if kids were going to like it," Marciano said, he's been delighted with the response. "My grandpa," he added, "knew what he was doing."
Marciano, one of three sons of Bemelmans' daughter Barbara, said that he "has never had any connection to little kids" but that he speaks their language. When he told the Downey schoolchildren that Madeline was born in 1939, one child figured out that she must be 60 years old. No, Marciano said reassuringly, "she'll always be somewhere between 4 and 8."
Madeline was named for Marciano's grandmother, Madeleine (Mimi), in whose New Jersey home the unfinished work was found. But, Marciano explained, "Madeleine doesn't rhyme with much," and it's the rhymes that make Madeline memorable. "They stick in your head like a good song."
Madeline, he said, "is a composite of my mother, my grandfather's wife and his own mother," brought up by English nuns whose little charges indeed "slept in two straight lines."
And, said Marciano, Madeline is also part Bemelmans. "He was always the one who got in trouble, the smallest one in class."
Born in Germany and sent to America as a teenager, Bemelmans was a self-taught artist who spent 15 years with New York's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, working his way up from busboy to assistant manager. But illustration was his first love, and in 1939, at 41, Madeline made him an overnight success. "Madeline in America" includes other tales by Bemelmans and a remembrance by his daughter.
Marciano, born after his grandfather died in 1962, inherited the illustrator gene--"The first thing I remember getting in trouble for is scribbling on my walls when I was about 2." And, he said, he "always wanted to be a writer."
Over the years, Madeline has morphed into an industry, but Marciano won't produce a spate of Madeline books just because he can.
This book is Madeline's swan song, he said, "unless there's another one lurking around somewhere."