I miss reading out loud in a silly voice.
The kids and I would snuggle together in tiny toddler beds after they picked out their book for the night. If I was trying to get them to sleep quicker, I’d skip a few pages and they’d call me out on it because they had their favorites memorized. So back I’d go – to Ferdinand in the bullring, Alexander’s horrible day, or Harold and his purple crayon.
Now I’d have to stay up way too late to tuck them in for the night.
But which was their bestest mostest favorite? I don’t know if I could say for sure but they all loved the series featuring Madeline, the spunky heroine created by Ludwig Bemelmans. My kids were fascinated with the character, perhaps because a building near our home looked like the convent school in Paris where she lived. My kids would shout, “There’s Madeline’s house!” as we drove by each and every time.
Bemelmans was an interesting character. Given a choice between America or prison, he left his native Austria at the age of 16. He worked for years at the Ritz, doodling during down time in the hotel’s ballroom. For the next 20 years, he tried his hand at advertising, drawing comic strips and illustrating and writing pieces for magazines, including The New Yorker. He also started writing children’s books, working with May Massee, a famous editor with Viking Press.
On vacation in France in 1938, he was struck by a bicycle and hospitalized, where he lay in bed, next door to a girl who had an appendectomy, staring at a crack in the ceiling that looked like a rabbit. Thus sprang Madeline.
An exhibit of Bemelmans’ work is currently on exhibit at the New York Historical Society. “Madeline in New York” features original gouache and oil paintings of famous illustrations from the books. Audio headsets provide children with clever insight about details in the paintings that will make them look more closely at the drawings the next time they turn the pages. I really enjoyed the illustrations from his time working at the Ritz. The clientele and his co-workers were terrific models and the accompanying captions are wickedly clever and snarky.
To complete your day in Bemelmans’ New York, stroll across Central Park to the Carlyle Hotel. The artist was a firm believer in the barter economy, trading meals and lodging for design work for many of the city’s famous restaurants and hotels. Most are long gone, like Luchow’s. But the bar at the Carlyle preserved the murals and lampshades he painted and named the bar after him. Having a drink with Miss Clavell and the girls feels wonderful and naughty, a bit like Madeline herself.
Entrance to the exhibit is included in the general admission to the NYHS ($19 Adults, $15 Seniors, $6 for Children – free for under 4) and runs through October 19. It will relocate to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst from November 15, 2015 – February 22, 2015. If you’re interested in reading more about the author’s life, I recommend Bemelmans: The Life and Art of Madeline’s Creator by grandson John Bemelmans Marciano.