One of the most enduring characters in children’s literature is a little girl who, as the story goes, is the smallest of them all. Madeline was first published 85 years ago in 1939, a sweet tale that produced over a dozen titles across different generations of readers. It endured into modern times, finding a second life through cartoons and a movie, and had its most recent entry (an alphabet book) published in 2022.

What readers may not realize is that the creator, who spent his youth running to and away from trouble, was inspired to create his most beloved character by an unlikely muse — one that nearly cost him his life.

Once Upon a Time in Paris

Every Madeline book starts with the same stanza: “In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.” But while the tale may begin inside this French boarding school run by friendly nun Miss Clavel, the action picks up when Madeline takes center stage. Being the smallest in her class hasn’t prevented her from being the bravest, showing no fear towards wild animals, heights, or any dangerous situation she confronts.

One night, something strange happens, as the fearless girl cries out in pain. Rushed to the hospital, she undergoes a sudden appendectomy that takes her away from school and her friends. When her classmates visit nearly two weeks later, they’re expecting a grim scenario. Instead, Madeline greets them with a smile, proudly showcasing her surgical scar and looking like she’s the mayor of the place. The students are happy to see her doing well, and in the end, all wish they could have their appendixes removed to be as content as Madeline.

If the plot of Madeline’s debut seems peculiar, that’s because it is. How many stories intended for young children center around an emergency surgery? There was no moral or valuable life lesson, just a slice of life for a dozen schoolgirls. To create this unique tale, the author pulled from real-life experiences that he felt would stand out on bookshelves. As the saying goes, inspiration comes from the strangest places.

Madeline doesn’t know the meaning of unconfidence, and at 7 years old, she probably can’t spell it either.

Ludwig Bemelmans/ Puffin Young Readers Group

Who created Madeline?

Ludwig Bemelmans had a rough start to life that could have sent him on a very different path than he ended up. Born in Austria in 1896, his father abandoned him at 6, leaving behind a pregnant wife (as well as their pregnant nanny) for a new life in America with another woman. While he loved to draw, his schooling was dismal, unable to overcome the language barrier when his mother relocated the family to Germany. After flunking the same grade again and again, he was sent away to a boarding school in an attempt to set him right. Instead, he was expelled.

Running out of options, he was sent back to Austria to work for his aunt and uncle in the family hotel business. Then, Bemelmans found trouble again.

“The headwaiter at that hotel was a really vicious man, and I was completely in his charge. He wanted to beat me with a heavy leather whip, and I told him that if he hit me, I would shoot him,” Bemelmans told The New York Times in 1941. “He hit me, and I shot him in the abdomen. For some time it seemed he would die. He didn’t. But the police advised my family that I must be sent either to reform school or America.”

Bemelmans chose exile. He arrived in New York in 1914 on Christmas Eve, awaiting his father to pick him up on Ellis Island. His dad never showed up, and the 16-year-old was on his own.

Ever resourceful, he picked up where he left off in Austria by working in various Manhattan hotels including the Ritz-Carlton. The back of a menu or napkin served as his sketchpad, and the guests were his subjects. Bemelmans paused his hotel work to serve in the U.S. Army during the First World War, but pursuing art as a career became his goal upon his return.

His first children’s book, Hansi, was published in 1934. Two years later, the character that became his most well-known had a cameo in his second book, The Golden Basket. Named after his wife, Madeline’s precocious attitude was ever-present, but a key part of her story was missing.

That’s because it hadn’t happened to the author yet.

An illustration from one of the more recent Madeline books, featuring a trip to The White House

John Bemelmans Maricano/ Puffin Young Readers Group

Is Madeline based on a true story?

While vacationing on the coast of France in 1938, Bemelmans was involved in a bike accident that left him hospitalized for a brief period. Somehow, the author was struck by the only car on this tiny island! The sights he saw while recovering in that hospital bed became the inspiration for his greatest success: the nuns and their starched habits, the crack in the ceiling that looked like a rabbit, and the little girl in the room next to him who had just had her appendix removed. Suddenly, he recalled stories from his mother about her boarding school experiences, and the puzzle pieces suddenly fit together.

Madeline became a best-seller in 1939, and was awarded the prestigious Caldecott Medal the following year, an honor given to children’s books of notable merit. Bemelmans continued the adventures of his petite redhead in six additional books, including two published posthumously. Thanks to an animated series and live-action movie, the character enjoyed a revitalized popularity through the ’90s, leaving the door open for his grandson to take the helm.

Starting in 2001, John Bemelmans Marciano wrote and illustrated Madeline’s continuing adventures, including a trip to Rome and a visit to the Oval Office, but there hasn’t been a new book in the series in years.

In Madeline in America — the final title credited to the original author after his passing (illustrated by his grandson) — Madeline learns she has an inheritance waiting for her in America but can only collect it once she turns 21. While the fearless girl remains permanently 7 years old and unable to accept her bequeathment, she’s rich in the knowledge of the joy she brought to kids around the world who still read about her escapades 85 years later.

And “that’s all there; there isn’t any more.”

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