White House Surprise

Madeline at the White House, by John Bemelmans Marciano
Viking, 2011

Towards the end of his life, Ludwig Bemelmans (1898-1962), corresponded with his friend, Jacqueline Kennedy, about an addition to his series of books about the little girl who lived in the old house in Paris. This time, she would visit another girl, one living in the house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Bemelmans’ grandson, John Bemelmans Marciano, fulfilled the idea with his own text and illustrations, giving readers another chance to spend time with one of the most beloved and distinctive girls in children’s literature.  The White House which Madeline visits to spend time with Miss Penelope Randall, aka Candle, is not surrounded by walls which cannot be scaled by protestors or enveloped in an aura of paranoid power.  Instead, it is a child forced to put up with all kinds of restrictions has the opportunity to enjoy herself almost to the point of excess and delirious joy: “Had two girls ever flown so high/Up into the starry sky?”

Candle is lonely; her father is not Theodore Roosevelt or John Kennedy, allowing pony rides or watching his children crawl under his desk.  Instead, she is virtually imprisoned, and has not a single classmate in her home school. (She does, however, have the opportunity to learn about such feminist heroines as Sojourner Truth and Amelia Earhart, another contrast to today’s White House.) When her absent mother sends a postcard promising her a visit from a Parisian friend, things begin to turn around.  Soon Candle is welcoming not one, but twelve, little girls to her home, and enjoying the protective warmth of surrogate mother, Miss Clavel.  

Some of the pictures are full of bright colors, while others repeat the yellow, black, and white of Bemelmans’ original series.  Wearing a red dress, Candle stands happily surrounded by her friends dressed in leaf green. They draw, play with dolls, roller skate, and otherwise expose her to the kind of freedom which she has never experienced.

One of the spectators at the Easter Egg Roll looks to me like Fiorello LaGuardia, but I can’t be sure. No one gets appendicitis, but they girls, and even Miss Clavel, overindulge to the point of illness.  They recover, to dress a rabbit in human clothes and dance to the accompaniment of an old-fashioned record player, which will be a wonderful conversation starter with children unfamiliar with pre-digital music. The visit culminates with some magical realism, as Candle, Madeline, and the rabbit fly over the reflecting pool and the Capitol.

The book and the visit have to end: “To say goodbye is always sad,/But coming home is never bad.” There is a list of the Washington sights included in the story, and the endpapers, rather poignantly, feature the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery. As Bemelmans Marciano points out in his background note, his grandfather, a proud veteran of the United States Army, is buried there.  No, he wasn’t a sucker or a loser, but rather a grateful immigrant to America who accepted the idea of service to a larger cause.  Coming home to a White House embodying this idea should not require a magic carpet or even an airplane. 

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