John Bemelmans Marciano Brings Madeline Back
Every child has that book that they make their parents read to them over and over again, until they memorize it and fool everyone into thinking they can read. Mine was Madeline. To this day, I can spew the rhythmic verses about the twelve little girls in two straight lines.
So I was star-struck to meet John Bemelmans Marciano, the author's grandson, who has recently written and illustrated the newest Madeline book, Madeline and the Cats of Rome. I was almost worried to read it -- could a new Madeline book hold a candle to the original? As I sat reading on the subway to meet Marciano in Brooklyn, I was overcome with memories of my mom and dad reading to me. The new book stays true to the most beautiful, distinctive aspects of the original, with added, unique charm.
Marciano never met his grandfather Bemelman, but his grandmother showed him a trunk full of Bemelman's original sketches, which he adopted with his own writing for a few other children's books. The illustrations for Madeline and the Cats of Rome, which Marciano sketched while living in Rome, are eerily reminiscent of his grandfather's Parisian sketches. Each scene brings to life scenes unique to Rome, like the colonies of homeless cats, and the tall and looming Cypress trees.
When the original Madeline was written, colored illustrations were too expensive, so in the book's 48 pages, only 8 of them were colored. The rest were outlined over a yellow background -- a look that became a signature of Bemelman's books. Marciano chose to stay with the "deceptively simple" outlines of his grandfather, only intertwining brightly colored pages when he wanted to slow down the story. "It's harder to make the black and white sketches look like my grandfather's work," he said. "You can hide so much with color, but with the lines, it's like trying to copy someone's signature."
The words, too, seem to extend from the original story, maintaining the same cadence and voice from 70 years ago. Marciano claims he's not a poet, never having studied it in school, but said he did follow the rules of poetry that his grandfather adhered to in his work in order to mimic the style.
Marciano is working on other projects now, but his most exciting endeavor will be fatherhood -- when we spoke hiw was was expecting. We talked a bit about becoming a dad and whether he was nervous or not. (He's not.) "I've always been dying to have kids. I'm psyched." When I asked him what kind of father he thinks he'll be, he answered, "Everyone wants to fix what their parents did and end up overcompensating. I just want to be a reasonable guy."
A reasonable guy, and an excellent storyteller and illustrator. We hope John creates more Madeline stories; I just don't like thinking that, as the last lines of the original story promise, "that's all there is, there isn't any more."