Madeline, Imperfection, Love, and Loss

Madeline, Ludwig Bemelmans, drawing with mistake (extra girl); caption omitted

In an old house in Paris
that was covered in 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.

Opening lines of Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans



So begins Madeline, the classic work of Ludwig Bemelmans. For the unfamiliar, Madeline is the story of a little girl, an orphan, who lives in an old house in Paris, with eleven other girls. Miss Clavel, a nun, leads them in schoolwork, outings in Paris, and the breaking of bread. Of course every story needs a crisis, and in Madeline it is this: Madeline’s appendix bursts; she’s rushed to the hospital; the other girls cry, Madeline returns, and all is as it should be.


I loved Madeline when I was a child. I loved the story, the slant of the letters on the cover, the musical beauty of the words. I loved the simplicity, the childlike spirit of the drawings: eyes drawn with dots, an abundant dose of yellow, falling snow depicted in white dots. Years later, I loved Madeline again. The mother of two daughters, I loved reuniting with the little girls in Paris, Miss Clavel, Madeline’s fearlessness (undaunted by mice, the tiger in the zoo), and the restoration of twelve.

Is “imperfection” even a legitimate term?

Strangely—or perhaps not—I never, in either of my two Madeline phases, noticed something. It wasn’t until my daughters were preteens, and I visited this book again, that I noticed . . . a mistake. Yes, a mistake, in Madeline.

To be exact, it’s a number mistake. Madeline is at the hospital, and the other eleven girls visit her. After Madeline waves goodbye, and the girls return home (in the rain), the picture at the dining table features not eleven, but twelve, sad-faced little girls. In this scene, in which they “broke their bread,” twelve frowning faces look to us to tell us, mealtime isn’t the same without Madeline. It’s as if Madeline has been replaced, or her absence does not count. And then, in the next picture, right below, in which they brush their teeth, eleven girls look at us upsettedly: six on one side, five on the other. On the next page, six beds on each side, and one is empty. Madeline has no longer been replaced, or her replacement is gone.

So there you have it, the mistake, an issue with continuity; the sort of thing some people (I’m not one of them) are very good at catching in movies: three people in one scene, the camera pans away, and suddenly there are four.
Madeline, Ludwig Bemelmans, with tiger

But now, having disclosed the “mistake,” I’ll admit that after giving it much thought, years ago, and again, now, I’m not sure that “mistake” is even a legitimate term. Part of me hones in on the integrity of a work of art: a piece of art is what it is, within its four corners (to borrow a legal term). Whatever is in there—factually true or not true; continuous, or not—is its truth, imperfections and all. (Is “imperfection” even a legitimate term?)

And now I’ll disclose another philosophical point. Naturally, I Googled the issue once I made my discovery. Had anyone else ever noticed the twelve-instead-of-eleven issue? The short answer is yes, but they were just quiet little mentions in lists of literary mistakes. As for the other big question, did Ludwig Bemelmans—and I will note here that he was both author and illustrator of Madeline—ever know? Again the short answer is an anecdotal yes, and, he chose not to “correct” it.

Whatever is in a work of art—factually true or not true; continuous, or not—is its truth, imperfections and all.

Naturally that last part triggered more thoughts and lively conversations. Should Ludwig Bemelmans have had the mistake corrected? On that one, I fielded enough thoughts for a lively discussion in a philosophy of art class. One possible explanation is a practical one: perhaps Bemelmans discussed it with the publisher, and the publisher said no, let it be. Or maybe Bemelmans simply did not wish to bother with it. By that I do not mean to say that he was lazy, or arrogant, but rather that as an artist, as a human being, he’d moved on. Correcting it would have meant ripping up something from his past, and a new drawing would in a sense corrupt the original because he wasn’t the same artist he’d been. Plus, we know that Madeline had much more to do, along with the rest of the girls, including rescuing a dog (Genevieve) from the river Seine; our artist’s energy was appropriately propelling forward.

The amateur psychologist in me has further considered: was Ludwig Bemelmans himself, in writing the first book, so wedded to the concept of twelve, so unable to fathom the thought of one being gone, that he subconsciously willed the twelfth into the picture? Or was his pen—the illustrator’s pen—so accustomed to drawing twelve that twelve just flowed out around the dining table? Then, in editing phases, he was so caught up in the narrative that he overlooked the extra person? (As I had apparently done as a reader, probably hundreds of times, as a child and as a mother: so moved by the story that I missed this detail). Or maybe—this idea crosses my mind a lot—did Bemelmans know about the error all along? Was it a clever way of winking at us—and winking at us, still?

Madeline, Ludwig Bemelmans, cover 

I still wonder, and still think about these things. When I revisit these books, I find myself cheering for the little girl, and for her friends, and think of all the love shown to these books, to Madeline herself, by so many, for all these years. When considering the “mistake,” in further thinking about Madeline, the important things stand out in my mind. First and foremost, Ludwig Bemelmans was human. Humans make “mistakes.” And it is the fact of his humanness, emerging all over every page (the slant, the simplicity of stroke, the whimsical mix of color and black and white), that makes me love this book more every time I read it, and savor the words conjoined with pictures. Madeline looks a little different on this page than on that. So does Miss Clavel. The drawings have perspective, but the artist never toiled over it. He drew and moved on, as we, the readers, receive the picture and move on with the rest of the story. I’d been hesitant, before, to share with anyone this “mistake” I’d found. (I didn’t want to take taint the magic.) But now I proclaim it. Madeline has a number discrepancy, a tiny hiccup of continuity, which hardly taints it, but rather makes it more perfectly not perfect.

Most important, of course, is what Ludwig Bemelmans gave us with his art: his conjoining of words and visual art and musical phrasing. What he gave us, with Madeline, was a message of love, simply, joyfully, and imaginatively, enchanting across time and place. He gave us Madeline, the smallest girl among the twelve, the one who stood up to tigers, and to mice. He gave us Miss Clavel, who loved Madeline, and all the girls, who cared for them, kept them safe, and bade them good night. That is the heart of Madeline, that every life is precious, and that when we love someone, it hurts so terribly much when they are gone.

— Joy Yeager, Zeteo Contributor


Joy Archer Yeager, a freelance writer living in Houston, Texas, holds a Master of Liberal Studies degree from Rice, a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and Spanish from the University of the South (Sewanee), and a Juris Doctorate from Southern Methodist University. An attorney specializing in legal writing, Joy has a husband, Doug, and two daughters, Melanie Kate and Holly. She reads and swims as much as she can.


  1. Have you also noted that Ms Clavel runs into the bedroom of the girls from different sides on the two different times she runs in? And also that the girl who sleeps in Madelines spot is not the same one who is saying Pooh Pooh to the tiger, the hair is different? It bothers me so!


  2. Yitzhak Yerranen

    Reading the book to my five-year-old granddaughter just now, I noticed the error in the number of girls in that picture. (And, of course, found this page with the help of Google.)


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