Was Madeline Really an Orphan?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to children’s literature and whether they are true or false.


Madeline was a series of children’s books created by writer/artist Ludwig Bemelmans in 1939, starring a cute little girl named Madeline who lived in 1930s France.

In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines,
lived twelve little girls in two straight lines
They left the house, at half past nine…
The smallest one was Madeline.

There are many books in the series (here are the first four), and the series continues to this day, now written by Bemelmans’ grandson, John Bemelmans-Marciano.

The books were adapted into a live action film in 1998…

The books have also been adapted to a number of animated programs over the years. I can’t speak to all of the animated series, but I know that the live action film made a major change that I think is likely to be the cause for a notable misconception people have of the Madeline books.

To wit, Madeline in the films is an orphan who lives in a boarding school.

That’s basically what the books are about, but they are about a little girl at a boarding school, and that’s it.

For years, people have basically assumed that the books are about an orphanage, and that’s not so. Heck, in at least one of the books, Madeline specifically refers to her father sending her something in the mail.

The books were always meant to be just about a group of little girls living in a boarding school in France.

Yet just do a quick search for “Madeline Bemelmans (so you don’t get other Madelines) orphanage” and you’ll see a number of citations to the books being about girls in an orphanage.

It’s the darndest thing.

Here are some samples…

After Madeline’s rescuer, the stray dog Genevieve, is banished from the orphanage…

Madeline is one of twelve girls living in an orphanage in Paris

However, when the orphanage’s board of trustees discovers that a dog is living on the

In any event, no, it’s a boarding school, not an orphanage.

3 Responses to “Was Madeline Really an Orphan?”

  1. ParanoidObsessive on February 9th, 2013 at 11:08 am

    I think the biggest reason for that misconception, at least in places like the US, is because the entire concept of a boarding school is kind of outside of the experience of most people (and many people may not even know they exist at all, or if they do, what they’re like). So their minds leap immediately to something they sort of know exists and which kind of matches the implied setting (ie, orphanages).

    Similar to how a lot of Americans find the premise of Hogwarts in Harry Potter kind of exotic, without realizing it’s basically just a fantasy analogue of actual British boarding school (just like the wizards’ college in the Discworld books is a British university analogue).

  2. This is nothing compared to an urban legend I heard once, and seemingly never again. I cannot find further inquiry into it online. The rumor was, the “boarding school” was actually a brothel, and that Madeline having her “appendix” removed was her having an abortion.

  3. Thanks for taking the time and care to clear up misunderstandings about Madeline. My mother read the books to all seven of my brothers and sisters and me when we were growing up. I loved them so much that when I took children’s lit in college, I wrote several papers on Bemelmans, his books, and I began reading his grown-up books as well. His autobiography, “Tell Them it Was Wonderful” is a great introduction to a wonderful man. In his books, you find out many of the characters from “Madeline” are based on people he and his daughter Barbera met on their travels. In the first book, after her apendectamy, Madeline mentions “The dollhouse from Papa”. He actually met a girl when he was in the hospital who was showing off her scar, which partly inspired the first book. Of course many of Madeline’s characteristics are also based on his daughter. I’ve also never understood why in the live action film, they gave Madeline a British accent.

Leave a Reply