The Smallest One Was Madeline

One of my all time favorite children’s books was “Madeline.” Have you read it? I’m assuming it’s so well known I don’t need to explain the premise to you, but just in case: the story focuses on a young girls boarding school in Paris, and a plucky, precocious girl named Madeline. It’s a testament to how frequently we read it growing up that I can recite the opening from memory to this day.

In an old house in Paris that was covered with 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. They smiled at the good and frowned at the bad and sometimes they were very sad. They left the house at half past nine in two straight lines in rain or shine — the smallest one was Madeline.

The book was written by Ludwig Bemelmans, an Austrian born writer and illustrator who is said to have named the title character after his wife, Madeleine Freund. He wrote 50 books, seven of which are the beloved Madeline series. Only six were published in his lifetime; the seventh was found after his death and published more than 30 years posthumously.

The illustrations in “Madeline” are just as charming as the story itself. I remember having a VHS tape of the original story, which used the same illustrations as in the book. I wonder where it wound up.



Only Bemelmans could have made having your appendix out something to envy as a child. It was quite the event, and Madeline got lots of presents and wore cute pajamas and had the teeniest little scar.

He also illustrated 16 New Yorker covers. I would love a copy of the first one with the Eiffel Tower in the background.


In 1953 he bought a small bistro on the Île de la Cité and painted murals on the interior walls. He sold it a few years later, and the murals were lost when the building was converted to a cabaret. The only other public mural work Bemelmans made was at the bar at the Carlyle Hotel in New York (at the now aptly named Bemelmans Bar) for which he negotiated a year’s worth of accommodations in exchange for his artwork. He painted whimsical scenes from Central Park, including a familiar face:



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Bemelmans died at the too-young age of 64. His grandson, John Bemelmans-Marciano, has continued the “Madeline” series with five new titles; Madeline has even visited the White House. I can’t wait to read these stories to my own child, one day.

26 thoughts on “The Smallest One Was Madeline

  1. madeline! i love these books. might be one of the things that got me imagining myself in paris at such an early age. i adore quiet books and i definitely feel like these are those type. i had no idea that he did so much illustration elsewhere! i love the ny’r covers, and yes, that first one, especially. happy weekend twinsy!

    1. Now that you mention it, I’m sure the books had something to do with my Parisian fascination as well…hm. I hadn’t realized he did so much illustration work until I started digging. Pretty neat stuff, right? xo

  2. Oh, how I loved Madeline when I was little! I will definitely be reading that one to my kids someday (and nieces and nephews too). I had no idea about the artwork at the bar in NYC, though. I’ll have to check it out on my next visit. :)

    PS – I have no idea how I stumbled upon your blog, but I absolutely love it. (I think I found it through a comment on another blog but I’ve just been clicking around procrastinating all morning so I couldn’t even tell you which one.) Also, when I read your Likes list (sleeping, Paris, Oxford commas, etc.) I literally said out loud to no one in particular, “I like all those things too!”

    1. Ha! Thanks so much, Stephanie, that’s the nicest compliment. And I’m glad there are more of us out there who like Oxford commas than I thought! We are a rare breed, I tell ya. I also love finding blogs through that sort of Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole clicking, I always stumble onto good ones that way. And you took the work out of it for me, so thanks for introducing me to your blog! :) xo

  3. Madeline was oh so precocious and a little bit sassy too. I always envied her spunk as a child – I wonder what she would be like as an adult…

    1. Totally sassy. Remember the tiger in the zoo? “Madeline just said, ‘Pooh, pooh!'” :)

  4. I’m embarrassed to admit that I never read this series. The horror! However, now that I have children I can right that wrong. Thank you for the recommendation. The books sounds really great. What a very magical life Bemelmans lived. I want to be him. ;)

    1. Oh no! Good thing you have kids you can read it to! The books really are a delight, one of my favorites. Your little ones will just eat them up, I promise! xo

  5. OMG, HAHAHAHA…didn’t even realize that was your post from the day! too funny!

    1. The film was very true to the book, so you’re more familiar with the series than you might think! xo

    1. I hope they love it as much as I did! If you can’t find a copy in Sweden let me know and I’ll be more than happy to send one your way :) xo

  6. It is such a beautiful opening! I’ve never even read the original and you’re right, the illustrations are amazing. Is that the first new yorker cover ever or just the first he illustrated?

    1. Just the first cover he illustrated, I should have been more clear! But now I’m curious as to the first ever New Yorker cover…xo

  7. I loved Madeline, to the point of owning a dress-up cloth Madeline doll that came with her own suitcase and interchangeable outfits. So many hours of joy had playing with that doll!

    On a less sentimental note, have you seen the video of (fake) Werner Herzog reading Madeline? It’s pretty amazing/hilarious:

    1. I think I had that Madeline, too! I used to steal her blue peacoat and put it on my American Girl doll. Oops. That video is hilarious!! Thank you so much for sharing that, I hadn’t seen it before. “Their discipline was impeccable….being children their concept of good and evil was not fully formed yet.” Ahahaha xo

  8. What a trip down memory lane! I loved Madeline growing up – and I had totally forgotten all about her! Not that I ever need an excuse to go in to a bar, but I would have loved to have seen those illustrations on my last trip to NY. Guess I have to go back!

    1. On your next trip back, let me know and we can go together! I bet the bar is just darling. xo

  9. I haven’t read Madeline is so long but I now remember the little rhyme. The two straight lines are so clear to me now. it’s such a shame that his mural in Paris was painted over, but his New Yorker covers are so charming! This is definitely one that i will read to my kids some day as well :)

    1. I really want to know what the murals in his Parisian restaurant looked like! I bet they were spectacular. Can you imagine dining there one night and sitting right next to his work? Must have been magical. xoxo

  10. I’ve just got a little bit emotional imagining reading this book to my little one!

    I didn’t read it as a child, but I would’ve loved it as I was obsessed with books about boarding school and the illustrations are wonderful.

    It’s amazing how books shape you. Keep the suggestions coming, I’m slowly building her a little library and she isn’t even born yet xo

    1. You’re so prepared! I’m telling you, all you’re missing is the baby! If you can, definitely add Madeline to your library for her, it’s just the most darling and special book.

      PS. I totally get the boarding school fascination, too! xoxo

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