I don't know if these books are so defining for everyone, but for me they played a huge part in my childhood. What beautiful illustrations, what stunning backdrops of Paris, what gorgeous colors! Who hasn't heard the iconic first few lines, "In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines"? And what little girl doesn't identify with Madeline, the smallest of the twelve and the only named girl, who is independent-minded and adventurous, and prone to getting into trouble?
I am by no means an expert in children's literature, but I think Bemelmans really understands kids, and gives them a lot more credit than most children's authors. There is a familiar adventure in which the girls befriend a heroic dog, but then lose her and have to search throughout the city, but there is also a story in which Madeline has to be rushed to the doctor to have her appendix out...and the story doesn't end there. Half of the first book is about Madeline's recovery in the hospital. When the other girls come to visit and are struck by the apparent glamour of it all, they all end up wanting their appendixes out too! In the third book, the son of the Spanish Ambassador moves in next door, and while he fools his parents and the girls' teacher, Miss Clavel, the girls can all see that Pepito is a "Bad Hat," cruel to animals and to them. Despite her dislike, Madeline saves the day when one of Pepito's schemes goes wrong and the boy is terribly injured (and of course, Pepito and the girls end up becoming fast friends). The book never states it outright, but gives tremendous credence to the the girls' intuitions, not only validating the truth of their own experiences but acknowledging that sometimes, children can see things that adults cannot.
If you've never read these books, you should! They're very short, but it's worth spending a little bit of extra time reading them so you can savor the pictures. As for me, I've got to find the fifth and sixth books in the series - I'm insatiably curious to find out what happens to Madeline next!
Also, I have a confession to make: my choice to read the Madeline books over again wasn't entirely random. Out of Print Clothing just came out with a new Madeline t-shirt, one I'm dying to have.
Isn't it gorgeous? You can find it on their website, http://shop.outofprintclothing.com. It or any other of their wonderful shirts would make a fabulous Christmas present for a bookish loved one!