Madeline is the title character from a series of five books by Austrian author Ludwig Bemelmans. First published in 1939, the last of the series came out in the early 1960s. Intended for a broad audience, the stories would have had a specific draw for girls.
The stories are set in a Catholic girls’ boarding school in Paris, which gives the reader a proscribed idea about the regimentation of the girls’ lives. Their behavior, appearance and dress are all regulated and part of a system. They are always described as “twelve little girls in two straight lines.” They all look alike except their hair, which is in different styles. Even though those styles are just lines, it does give them a bit of individuality.
Except Madeline, who, of course, must stand out as the main character. She is the most unique girl of the bunch as she is the smallest, only seven years old, with red hair. But as we learn with her adventures, Madeline is also the most clever, curious, and brave of her schoolmates. This attitude makes her appealing as she is an example of being a feminine little girl, but not a princess and quite precocious.
Bemelmans is noted for respecting his audience of young people saying that “We are writing for children, not for idiots.” This author/illustrator’s attitude towards who is consuming the material is very telling, given the simplistic illustrations that serve to quickly and clearly emphasize key points. However, in the illustration above, we don’t know which girl is Madeline.