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ON THE SHELF

Roamin' holiday

October 12, 2008|Scott Timberg

MANY Americans know every line of the children's books starring Madeline, the pesky, hat-wearing redhead who lived in an "old house in Paris that was covered in vines." Growing up in the 1970s, John Bemelmans Marciano was not one of them.

"I didn't really understand [the books' importance] till I was older," Marciano said. "People weren't reading children's books," he said of his rural New Jersey hometown, "or they weren't reading those children's books."

But unlike most Americans, Marciano, 38, is the grandson of "Madeline" author-artist Ludwig Bemelmans, and as time went on, the Brooklyn-based artist, who is fascinated with '60s comic books and '30s films, decided to go back to the work of the grandfather he never met.

Though the last few years have seen some cannibalization of Bemelmans' work, the recent "Madeline and the Cats of Rome" is the first entirely new Madeline storybook written since the author's 1962 death. It's in the spirit of the original Madeline books, even if it doesn't try to emulate every detail or even their setting.

"It was kind of intimidating for me to do a Paris book," Marciano said. "My grandfather knew it so well: He knew every tree, every architectural detail. I had lived in Rome on and off -- and I have this lifetime love of cats."

Setting the story in Rome also allowed him to bring Madeline into the present in a way that isn't jarring.

"Rome really is the Eternal City, it hasn't changed. And I was able to put in some of my favorite spots."

"The Cats of Rome" takes Madeline and her blue-dressed classmates past the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon and the Sistine Chapel.

While touring some ruins, a young thief grabs their teacher's camera, leading to a great chase sequence past the Colosseum, and to more plot twists than is usual in a book for 3- to 5-year-olds.

Marciano wanted to play up some of his grandfather's love of comic books and graphic design. But he knew longtime readers wanted the new book to be as close to the midcentury originals as possible.

"With this book I had to take a lot of my ego out of it. It's funny; in a way, it takes some pressure off you."

-- Scott Timberg

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