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Is Madeline really 75 years old? Her author talks to NPR

October 11, 2013|By Carolyn Kellogg
  • John Bemelmans Marciano continues the Madeline stories; the little girl from the children's books is about to turn 75.
John Bemelmans Marciano continues the Madeline stories; the little girl… (Los Angeles Times )

The very first book featuring the little girl in a coat and yellow hat, "Madeline," appeared in 1939, and the Madeline series has continued ever since. On Friday, NPR got the jump on Madeline's upcoming 75th birthday by talking to her author.

The original author was Ludwig Bemelmans, but he's not who appears on the radio; instead it's his grandson, John Bemelmans Marciano. Marciano has been writing and illustrating new Madeline books for more than a decade, continuing his grandfather's legacy in books including "Madeline and the Cats of Rome" and "Madeline at the White House."

In 2011, he created the art for the L.A. Times Festival of Books. This month, his latest Madeline book, "Madeline and the Old House in Paris" -- a ghost story! -- will be published by Viking Children's.

Madeline is a little girl who travels with -- or away from -- her school friends, who are told to travel in two lines. The books, aimed at children 3 to 5 years old, are told in sweet rhymes that on occasion don't entirely fit.

Marciano tells NPR about the origins of some of Madeline's more idiosyncratic rhymes. His grandfather, he explains, "didn't speak any language without an accent. I don't know that he really had a first language. He spoke French, basically until he was 5, then he moved to Germany until about 13 or 14. And then he moved to America. By the time he was 18 I think he had all three of those languages in his head."

The character of Madeline was based "essentially on my mother, and also my grandmother," he told the Times in 2011. In his NPR interview, he adds a surprising twist: Madeline was also based on Bemelmans himself. "He was the littlest kid in class," Marciano says. "He always felt like an outsider. He was getting into trouble. So I think it was very autobiographical."


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