Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Madeline and the Cats of Rome

Not long ago, and as I perused the children’s section for the perfect gift for the girliest of eight year-olds, I spied a book I’d never seen before:  Madeline and the Cats of Rome.  As a child, I loved the Madeline books by author Ludwig Bemelmans.  I knew those hallmark opening lines by heart, and I loved those twelve little girls in two straight lines.  So, I was a bit confused to see a title I’d never seen before. 

But there’s no need for confusion:  the new Madeline book is by John Bemelmans Marciano, grandson of Ludwig Bemelmans. John Marciano strives to pick up where his famous grandfather left off and provide another generation of readers with more Madeline adventures. 

Madeline and the Cats of Rome looks and feels much like the classic Madeline books.  Madeline, Miss Clavel,  Genevieve, and the little girls take a field trip to Rome together.  They visit all of the major landmarks in the city, but their fun is interrupted when Miss Clavel’s camera is stolen.  A chase ensues, Madeline is lost and then found, and there are a whole lot of cats involved. 

Marciano does not quite have his grandfather’s knack with a rhyme, and some of the lines feel clunky:
The train it leaves at half past nine –
Hurry, hurry, Madeline!
Across the Alps the pace was slow;
The mountains still were packed with snow.
But the far and farther south they traveled
The more that winter came unraveled.  
And I question the story of a child who steals a camera in Rome, not because it lacks veracity, but because it rings too true.  Too often the Roma (the itinerant travelers, sometimes called “gypsies”) use children as thieves in Italy because Italian law is very soft when it comes to children.  As it turns out Caterina, the young thief, is not a career criminal but rather a young lady with a soft spot for Rome’s homeless cats.  And the moral about stealing is clarified in capital letters: “STEALING IS WRONG – no matter the cause.”  But there is still something unsettling in the plot.

Having said that, though, the illustrations have the same warm, sketched quality for which Bemelmans was beloved.  They alternate between full-color explosions and the yellow and black suggestions which made the Madeline books so unique.  The images are close enough to the real thing to be recognizable even for young children, but they still maintain a soft, fantasy quality.  Vespas zip past.  A plump bishop dressed all in white bustles through the piazza.  And white birds soar over St. Peter’s looking much more like doves than the pigeons you’d more typically see in Rome.  

And the book makes a wonderful guide to Rome’s most famous sights for the younger set. Indeed, the book might inspire an itinerary – and it would be fun to try to take a family photo in every Madeline spot.  Madeline makes her way to St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon, the Forum, Trevi Fountain, and the Colosseum amongst others.

For children preparing to visit Rome or for families remembering a recent trip, Madeline and the Cats of Rome would make a wonderful scrapbook.  And for those who have never been to Rome, Madeline may just inspire a life of wanderlust. 

Pertinent Information:
Madeline and the Cats of Rome
By John Bemelmans Marciano
Copyright 2008
Published by Penguin Group (Viking)
Hardcover:  $17.99
Recommended for ages 3 and up

1 comment:

Vera Marie Badertscher said...

Hi Angela: This book looks charming, but I agree the plot has a rather disturbing element. I will link to your page when I do an article on children's books and travel at A Traveler's Library. Thanks for reminding me of Madeline.

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