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Madeline, Me, and the Cathedral of Notre Dame

The classic children’s book caused me to feel and understand the tragedy of the fire when I wouldn’t have otherwise

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Photo: Ldorfman; Ldorfman [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D
I don’t possess any personal connection to the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. I’ve never even been to the City of Light. I don’t have a selfie to post or a brochure or keychain from the grand gothic masterpiece that was nearly destroyed by fire last week.

I do, however, have a copy of Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans, the classic 1939 children’s book, somewhere in our house.

At least, the book supposed to be here. I vaguely remember stowing it away in a box several years back in the attic for safe-keeping with other beloved and well-worn children’s books my daughter and son read with me in recliners and on couches some twenty years ago.

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Photo: Unsplash

It was a sweet story to savor about the adventures of Miss Clavel and the eleven little girls plus Madeline, who wasn’t afraid of mice and “loved winter, snow, and ice.” The story’s closing lines, “‘Good night, little girls! Thank the Lord you are well! And now go to sleep!’ said Miss Clavel,” ended the tale every time with poignancy and satisfaction.

Because my only association with the cathedral is through Madeline, my thoughts returned to the 1940 Caldecott Honor-winning book upon hearing of the fire that swept through Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral on April 15.

Somewhere within my copy of Madeline, if I could find it, is Bemelmans’ illustration of the cathedral’s front facade with its nearly identical towers. I remember that the picture looms large on the over-sized page and appears dreary, especially since the church is depicted during a downpour.

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I do have a “copy” of Madeline inside an anthology of classic children’s books from the 20th century. The full-size images are printed four to a page, so the illustrations don’t have the presence that they do in the stand-alone storybook. 

Like thousands of others last week, I was saddened by the images of the violent flames raging through the ancient timber roof, toppling the spire, and bringing a centuries-old structure to its knees within minutes.

Seeing any building burn is difficult, but as I watched Madeline’s cathedral burn last week, it was especially so. And yes, I realize that part of my endearment to the cathedral could be chalked up to nostalgia for my kids’ childhoods; however, there was much to lose in that awful fire when one considers…

Despite the damages and loss of important areas of the cathedral, however, I do know that I gained this: a deeper appreciation for the power that a children’s book can possess. Last week, Madeline helped me to connect with others around the world saddened by the cathedral fire.

No, I haven’t been to Paris, but a classic children’s book–and not a selfie–transported me there. Thanks to Madeline, I felt and understood the loss of the fire when I wouldn’t have otherwise.


Books can provide more than just entertainment. Thanks for reading! Feel free to leave a comment and follow my blog for more stories on travel, art, and education.

By marilynyung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

5 replies on “Madeline, Me, and the Cathedral of Notre Dame”

You are so right! I have been to Paris when I was younger and I thought the gargoyles on the outside were really scary! When they were talking about the Cathedral fire someone was explaining that the reasons the gargoyles are on the outside is because on the inside there is an opposing angel driving them out! I wish I would have known that! It would have made them oh so much less scary! I love books and how they transport us to other places! Great post!

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We were there last year, and it broke my heart to see such an ancient and magnificent place burn. Irreplaceable. Thankfully there are books – like Madeline – that will remind people of what Notre Dame was like before this tragedy.

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Reblogged this on ELA Brave and True: A Blog by Marilyn Yung and commented:

This Christmas, for the first time in more than 200 years, Christmas Mass will not be held at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Last April’s fire have forced services at the famous cathedral to be held at the Eglise Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois, a church near the Louvre. This week, I’ve decided to reblog a post from my travel site, http://www.marilynyung.wordpress.com. This post was written the week after the cathedral fire and pays tribute to the children’s book, Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans. By the way, I still have not located the copy of the book mentioned in the post. Darn.

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