Madeline And The Gypsies by Ludwig Bemelmans

Madeline and the Gypsies is one of the sequels to Madeline.


Ludwig Bemelmans named his fictional little girl after his real-life wife. Although if you know any Madelines, you may find her name is spelt (more traditionally) with an extra ‘e’, as was Madeleine Bemelmans’ name. This series itself has probably contributed to the more modern, simplified spelling. Although Madeline was named after Bemelmans’ wife, the character was inspired by the activities of his only daughter, Barbara.

Ludwig died quite young of cancer of the pancreas aged 64 back in 1962, but one of his grandsons is also a children’s book writer/illustrator and has contributed some extras to the series.

Ludwig’s first language was French and his second German. That explains the fetching but unusual grammatical constructions of the English.


  • ink and watercolour
  • probably dry brush in places
  • bold, quick markings
  • impressionistic tendencies
  • a mixture of coloured and monotone plates
  • dark colour scheme, not bright and cheerful like some people think children’s illustrations should be
Notice the use of complementary colours, with the dominant purple and the primary yellow spot of colour in the foreground. This allows the reader to focus on the characters.


First published (in its full length) in 1959, this is a children’s book from the Second Golden Age of children’s literature. Accordingly, improvements in colour printing technology made it possible to produce cheaper multicoloured plates, and the Madeline books are not quite full colour. (I guess the yellow and black pages were to keep printing costs down rather than adding any symbolic meaning to the story.)

You can probably tell from the style of the illustrations that there is nothing specifically childlike about this work. It looks quite at home in The New Yorker and in an art gallery, which is where a lot of Bemelmans’ work spent time. This guy wasn’t “just” a children’s book writer and illustrator — a lot of his work was produced for adults.

However, Bemelmans wasn’t formally trained to a high level. He took art classes now and then and his father was a painter but his style is self-taught. (I suppose all great artists are, in the end, self taught.)

Bemelmans said that he felt he had no imagination and was only able to draw from real life inspiration. I’m not sure any illustrator is able to draw entirely ‘from imagination’ — even the very best concept artists are drawing from the real world; the difference may be that concept artists are good at placing unexpected realworld elements together. Other artists have a great memory for detail and don’t need to look at their source material in order to reproduce it.


Like other books from this era, the (quasi) opponents turn up in the form of gypsies, though I do like this particular story in that the gypsy mama turns out to be a goodie, as does the nun who runs the orphanage. Generally in children’s literature these two positions make the women default baddies.


But this story is carnivalesque. In fact, there is no better example of carnivalesque kidlit — it literally takes place at a carnival. There is no real baddie in a carnivalesque story for young readers.

Each book in the series opens with the information that Madeline is the smallest of all the girls. This is a fairytale technique, in which the smallest character is designed specifically to be the character who engenders sympathy — a proxy for the youngest child of three.

Interestingly, Madeline is different from all the others because of her red hair. By the time this book was published there was no longer the view — as there had been in L. M. Montgomery’s time — that red-headed girls were akin to witches and inherently dangerous.



Madeline is an orphan and gets stuck, rather metaphorically, at the top of a ferris wheel during a thunder storm.



At first Madeline just wants to get off the ferris wheel, but after the rescue (by the gypsy mama and Pepito, her boy companion) that it would be much more fun to follow the circus than to go back to the orphanage.



The opponent is the orphanage, personified by Miss Clavel, the nun. Miss Clavel is not an evil person at all — she has been worrying herself sick about Madeline, but when she receives a postcard she stops worrying about Madeline and, rather comically, worries that she’s forgotten how to spell. The real enemy here is formal education which stunts creativity and curbs adventure.


The Gypsy Mama has a rather unusual plan — when she sees (in her conveniently accurate crystal ball) that Miss Clavel is coming to get Madeline back, she dresses Madeline and Pepito as a scary lion so that Miss Clavel will be scared away.


Madeline and Pepito come close to death when, disguised as a realistic lion, they meet a man with a gun, who might just as well have shot them as run away in fright.


The anagnorisis comes when Madeline sees Miss Clavel and the other little girls in the front row of the circus. She realises how much she’s missed them. Back at home, “Here is a freshly laundered shirty. It’s better to be clean than to be dirty”. Home has its advantages just as the wilderness has its advantages. There is no hierarchy anymore.


Miss Clavel will now be extra careful about counting all the girls to make sure none goes missing!

Madeline In London by Ludwig Bemelmans

Madeline In London is another carnivalesque story from Ludwig Bemelmans, who may or may not have shot a waiter and been forced to emigrate to America. This probably doesn’t have much to do with anything, except I can’t look at the tea and crumpets scene in this story without wondering about that.

Bemelmans’ Madeline series is considered ‘doggerel’. What’s that?

Doggerel = comic verse composed in irregular rhythm.

However, the word also describes verse which is simply badly written.

What, exactly, is the difference between ‘classic doggerel’ and ‘bad writing’? What makes a publisher say, “This is hard to read aloud but it’s a great example of doggerel”, versus “This author has absolutely no idea about rhyme schemes and scansion and I’m not going to take a second look at it”?

Who knows.

madeline-in-london by ludwig bemelmans



Although from the title you’d expect the star of this story to be Madeline, I don’t think it is. The star is Pepito, who changes the most over the course of the story.


Pepito has been taken away from his best friends next door, to an embassy in London where he is so lonely he is starving himself to death.


He wants to see his old friends, especially Madeline.


The ‘opponent’ in a carnivalesque children’s story is often nothing to do with the character arc, but a character who causes joyful chaos and mimics the big struggle scene found in more serious works. In this case, it’s the horse — a wonderful choice, because a horse is a ridiculous choice of gift for a boy who lives in a London embassy.


Pepito and his family plan to show Madeline and the girls a good time looking at the tourist attractions


But the horse causes mayhem due to the fact he is a retired palace horse who doesn’t realise he’s been put out to pasture, almost made into glue.

The final straw (haha) is when the horse eats all of the flowers in the gardener’s garden — flowers which the gardener gets up to enjoy every morning. This results in everyone crying.


Madeline and Pepito’s mother share the revelation that the horse can’t possibly stay in London so he’ll go home with Madeline to Paris.

Notice that the revelation is shared. This is a children’s book, and part of the responsibilities do lie with the adult characters.


The horse now sits at the table and is looked after by the little girls.

Clifford The Big Red Dog by Norman Bridwell

Clifford The Big Red Dog is a picture book series by Norman Bridwell. This is an enormous franchise of children’s books which covers every generic, American childhood event you could imagine: Clifford’s First Christmas, The Big Sleepover, Clifford’s First School Day and so on. Bridwell died fairly recently, in 2014 at the age of 86.

“It’s hard having kids because it’s boring”, begins Louis C.K. (something explored in detail by Naomi Wolf in her book on birth and parenting, Mythconceptions).

“They all tell the exact same story. Look how big this dog is. … Here’s how big he is at the firehouse. Here’s how big he is at Thanksgiving. Who gives a shit? You just DREW him big! You on purpose drew him bigger than people. It should be ‘look how big I drew the dog in this book. Isn’t that a mistake.’ There’s no story! You maybe drew him closer to the page — I don’t even know if you did it honestly. Tell a STORY about Clifford! Make something happen, like maybe he steps on a policeman and shatters his spine and it’s devastating to the community. He hangs on for two months and then dies. And there’s a funeral with bagpipes and everybody’s crying and Clifford gets the death penalty. He found Jesus but everyone said it was bullshit. The cops wife was like, ‘I want that dog dead!’. Then he goes to the chair and they shave all his red fur off and now he’s Clifford The Big Pink Dog.”


When Louis C.K. says that the books have ‘no story’ he is of course making a joke about how the quiet, domestic nature of children’s stories seem like nothing in comparison to the kind of adult genre novel he later suggests as a Clifford the Dog plot — something from genre fiction, involving crime, murder, courthouse drama, with gritty, adult themes about retribution. Of course the Clifford books do conform to the rules of complete story structure. That’s why they’re so popular.

We have a few Clifford books on our bookshelf because my daughter is a fan.

CLIFFORD’S FIRST DAY AT SCHOOL is a flashback story. In some of the Clifford plots the dog’s size actually prevents him from doing things, so Bridwell created ‘Clifford as small puppy’ stories to allow him to, in this instance, go inside a classroom. He had a great time in the classroom, walking through paint and having a carnivalesque adventure, with the sane and calm teacher providing the counterpoint ‘straight guy’ humour, and also bringing an end to the story itself by telling Emily Elizabeth to take him home for some proper lunch. There is no anagnorisis and the fun equals the big struggle. This makes it seem, at first glance, as if there is ‘no story’.

CLIFFORD’S FIRST CHRISTMAS is another flashback ‘Clifford’s first’ story. Clifford gets stuck at the top of the Christmas tree and has to be rescued by ‘daddy’ (because as in the Grimm versions of fairytales, characters are best rescued by men). Next he is knocked over by a bauble. This is basically mythic structure without leaving the house — Clifford is encountering a series of ‘opponents’ along the journey. Next he gets tangled in curling ribbon. Christmas Day itself turns into another carnivalesque adventure owing to Emily Elizabeth and Clifford playing with her toys.

THE BIG SLEEP OVER has an introduction by a woman with a Ph.D telling parents what the moral of the story is. (Hint: It’s about separation anxiety, but you knew that from the title, didn’t you?) This strange introduction is perhaps in response to parents, parodied by Louis C.K., who think that these Big Red Dog books have no story, boring incidents and are basically trash. This one was written after the series had already been acquired by PBS and was no longer written by Norman Bridwell himself. Now it’s by Larry Swerdlove, who wrote the TV script. It is immediately different, launching straight into dialogue, including a black boy, and (not very good) rhyming verse. This story keeps Clifford at his adult size, making use of that common children’s writers’ trick of oversize. In the world of children’s stories we have a lot of oversized food, we have oversized teddy bears, and other interesting tinkering with scale. While this story begins with a carnivalesque day, the night involves a howling Clifford whose loneliness must be problem-solved by the surrounding adults who can’t sleep. Charley’s father takes him for a ride in his pick-up truck, then the townspeople sleep next to him to keep him company. “Work together… That’s the message for kids in THE BIG SLEEP OVER!” it says on the back cover, though I imagine the message for kids is: If you can’t sleep, make noise until mum or dad lie down next to you, which is fine in co-sleeping cultures.

The Way Back Home by Oliver Jeffers (2007)

First published in 2007, The Way Back Home by Oliver Jeffers has a carnivalesque/tall tale plot but with the slow, reflective mood of Jeffers’ later work, for example The Heart And The Bottle.

the way back home cover



“Once there was a boy.”

This is a generic child and he doesn’t require a psychological/moral shortcoming. He’s a stand-in character for the reader.

He is perhaps a little too rash. (He should have checked the plane had petrol, at least!)


He wants to fly the aeroplane that he finds in his cupboard one day when putting things away.


Nature’s against him — this plane he found has run out of petrol and now he’s stuck on the moon.



When the alien happens to turn up they make a plan together.


The reader only sees them gesture to each other. We don’t know how they’re going to get off the moon.

A great example of sequential narrative art, in which the same characters are repeated performing sequential actions, without frames.


The boy’s main big struggle is with himself. Back on Earth, he gets waylaid by the TV. But eventually he realises what he’s supposed to be doing. The big struggle is symbolised by the very high mountain he has to climb in order to hoist himself back up to the moon.


After fixing the alien’s flying saucer and filling his own plane with petrol he learns that he can be self-sufficient.

But the other part of the plot is about the kindness of strangers. The boy learns that strangers in a pickle can help each other out.


He goes back home. The alien goes the opposite direction, also back home. A lot of picture books have a circular ending, especially carnivalesque ones, in which we get the idea this kind of thing is going to happen all over again, only with a minor modification. But Oliver Jeffers doesn’t tend to do that — his work has a melancholic finality to it. It’s bittersweet that this boy will never see the alien again, and Jeffers’ depiction of the boy saying goodbye is perfect — looking at the ground and drawing into the moondust with his toe.

the way back home ending