How does an author go from writing about a little French girl in the city to telling tales about young lambs in the country? According to John Bemelmans Marciano, author of the new children’s book Delilah, the stretch from skyscrapers to cornfields isn’t that far.
Marciano, as it turns out, knows about both worlds. His art studio, a converted 100-year-old country department store in Three Bridges, New Jersey, sits across the street from the horse farm where he grew up. Three Bridges is a town, the author points out, where every road is named after the farmer who lived there. Yet less than an hour away bustles the big city of Manhattan.
While the city in this case, Paris provided a backdrop for one of Marciano’s previous titles (Madeline Says Merci: The Always-Be-Polite Book), it wasn’t the inspiration for it. Marciano just happens to be the grandson of the beloved children’s author Ludwig Bemelmans, creator of the adorable character Madeline. In launching his own career as a children’s book author, Marciano paid homage to the grandfather he never knew with the acclaimed tribute Bemelmans: The Life and Art of Madeline’s Creator.
“My grandmother’s living room was devoted to my grandfather’s work,” says Marciano. “The idea [of his first book] was to have a vehicle for all of his works.” Not only was the elder Bemelmans a children’s book author, he also wrote novels and screenplays and was a very successful painter. While rummaging through his grandfather’s things, Marciano came across a full manuscript for a Madeline story with sketches of what the drawings were supposed to look like. Using this unfinished text, he illustrated Madeline Says Merci, a worthy addition to the series his grandfather began.
An accomplished artist in his own right, Marciano started drawing comics at the age of five. Later, as an art history major in college, he wanted to be a painter but also enjoyed writing. “I realized that children’s books are the perfect marriage of art and text,” says Marciano, “and for me it seemed like such a natural thing to do.” So where did the idea for his new character, Delilah the lamb, come from? The headlines, of all places. An article in a news magazine about Dolly, the sheep who had been cloned, got Marciano thinking. “The original idea was centered around what a clone might think,” says Marciano. “What if you’re an individual and everyone else is the same?” In the book, Delilah is the only lamb who doesn’t grow up in a factory farm environment. Instead, as a baby she is placed on a farm with Red, a farmer who treats young Delilah as if she is human. She eats at the table, sleeps inside the house and helps Red do his chores. And she is very happy that is, until the other sheep arrive.
Because she isn’t like them, the other sheep don’t accept Delilah. They eat grass, sleep outdoors and lie around all day. Although Delilah tries to do the things that they do, she is miserable. So, too, is Red the farmer. He can no longer tell Delilah apart from the rest of the sheep. It is not until Delilah regains her individuality that both she and Red can again be content. “I wanted to express the idea that love and friendship can make you happy,” says Marciano. “But just as important, you need to be yourself.” Delilah may be Marciano’s first original character, but don’t expect her to be his last. For his next project, he is heading back to the city and hopes to create an interesting storyline for his new characters. “As with Delilah, I want the story to be thought-provoking for not only the kids, but also for the parents as they read along,” he explains. With the many ideas he has for future books, it shouldn’t be difficult for him to reach that goal. Heidi Henneman writes from New York City.