Here’s a Christmas story for you. Once upon a time, many years ago, there was a little girl. At four, she was a skinny, sickly, anxious creature. When our story begins, she was recovering from a serious operation. To make matters worse, every year around the holidays, regular as the tides, she’d be laid low by bronchitis or pneumonia, and this Christmas Eve was no exception. She was resting on the couch after supper, when suddenly she heard the sound of sleigh bells, and then someone pounding loudly on the front door. When her mother answered the door, there was Santa Claus, brushing snow from his beard and ho-ho-ho-ing to beat the band.
“I’m looking for Janey Julius,” Santa thundered.
“That’s me,” squeaked the child with delight and amazement.
“Well, Janey, my elves tell me that you’re not feeling well, so I thought I’d drop by and give you a special present. But you have to go right to sleep when your mama says, so I can come back later. Promise?”
“Oh yes,” the little girl gasped.
Santa opened his bulging pack and rummaged around for a few tantalizing moments, then pulled out a thin, rectangular package wrapped in red and white striped paper and tied with green ribbon. As he handed it to the child, he said, “Now you get well. I’ll be keeping an eye on you because I want you to grow up to be a big, strong girl.” And with that, he was gone in a flurry of bells.
That little girl, as you may have guessed, was me, and the special present was Ludwig Bemelmans’ wonderful picture book, “Madeline.” First published in 1939, “Madeline” became so loved by generations of children that it is still in print today. And no wonder: its simple story, charmingly rhymed and gorgeously illustrated by the author, speaks to readers of all ages. I made my parents read it to me so many times that I can still recall its opening lines word-for-word: “In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. In two straight lines they broke their bread and brushed their teeth and went to bed.
For years, I didn’t understand that the little girls were residents of a private boarding school. I thought they were orphans, cared for by the kindly, but to me, mysterious, Miss Clavel. I say mysterious because she is a very tall, thin woman who is dressed much like a nun in a long blue cape and a sort of wimple. Regardless, she is a benevolent figure, and it is clear that she cares deeply for her charges. To children, there is something wonderfully comforting about the strictly ordered lives of these children. Not only do they wear identical clothes and go about their days in two straight lines, but they also venture out daily “at half past nine…in rain or shine.”
It is not until about a quarter of the way through this slim volume that we learn that “the smallest one was Madeline.” Of course, as a shrimpy little kid myself, I felt an immediate kinship with Bemelmans’ heroine. However, while I was a timorous, anxious child, Madeline is an intrepid, fearless, and mischievous tease. We learn that “she was not afraid of mice. She loved winter, snow and ice.” Nothing fazes this kid. In one of the marvelous paintings that appear in the book, Madeline is yelling “Pooh-pooh” at a ferocious tiger in the zoo while the other girls cling in terror to Miss Clavel’s skirts. Although I probably didn’t realize it at the time, I’ve come to see that Madeline’s bravery and spunk called out to me, as if urging me to overcome my timidity and become more adventurous.
Madeline’s real adventure begins late one rainy night. Miss Clavel is aroused by the sense that “something is not right,” and sure enough, Madeline is awake and crying in pain. She has appendicitis, and is rushed to the hospital for surgery. Wow! I could relate to that. Just like me, my heroine had to have an operation and stay in the hospital for days and days. When Miss Clavel and the other children go to visit her, their serious little faces are transformed with delight when they find their buddy surrounded by toys, flowers and candy. But what really impresses the girls, and what certainly impressed me, is the pride with which Madeline shows off her scar. Until that moment, I had regarded my own scars as ugly reminders of fear and pain. Yes, they made me feel different from my friends, but not in a good way. Madeline taught me that scars can be badges of honor and courage – something to wear with pride.
Bemelmans ends the story with such sly humor that even adult readers can’t help but laugh. Madeline’s friends return to their home with very glum faces. Clearly something about their hospital visit has upset them. Once again, in the middle of the night, Miss Clavel awakens and, fearing disaster, rushes to the dormitory where the little girls sleep (in two straight lines, naturally). Her charges are bawling their eyes out. “Boo hoo,” they cry. “We want to have our appendix out too!” The last few lines of the story are especially endearing, as the print gets smaller and smaller until it is barely legible – a cue to the adult who is reading to some lucky child to whisper the remaining words.
Re-reading “Madeline” after all this time has made me see what a wonderful role model little Madeline turned out to be for me. I could relate to her in so many ways, but it was our differences that inspired me to come out of my shell and emulate her joie de vivre. Years after that magical Christmas Eve, my parents told me that they had no clue as to the Santa’s identity, nor how he knew I was ill, nor how he chose the perfect book for me. But I’ve never doubted that the man in the red suit who visited our house that night was the real deal. Who else could have known exactly what I needed to lift my spirits and set me on the road to a happy life?