The children came in and climbed on their chairs again. “Daddy, there is a boy all the way upstairs, in a room above ours…in the attic right under the roof with a little window…and he has a frog in a preserve jar.
The frog is green and very hungry and we have to catch flies for him. He eats six of them every day, and he is very smart. Inside his bottle there is a small lake, a garden made of moss, a stone, and a ladder. When he sits on top of the ladder the sun is going to shine, but when he is down in the lake or in his garden it will rain. And he is building a boat — no, not the frog, Daddy — the boy. His name is Jan. It’s written J-a-n, but you pronounce it “Yan.” His other name is ter Meulen and his father and mother own this hotel. He will come down in a minute. Here are your glasses, but we did not bring the umbrella because the frog is always right.”
To prove this, Jan came into the room carrying the frog inside his bottle. He put it on the table in front of Mr. Coggeshall. With the aid of the two little girls he imitated the noises of rain, wind, and lightning, a performance so convincing that the frog plopped down the ladder into his lake under the water…
Mr. Coggeshall said that there was no doubt left in his mind and that it was wonderful that a simple, wet little animal in a bottle knew so much about the weather…
At this moment…a thunderbolt shook the air, and across the wide square came a sheet of rain. Monsieur Carnewal closed the windows and turned on the light. The big raindrops drummed on the panes…
“First we will finish breakfast, children; then you may go upstairs with Jan,” said Mr. Coggeshall, who had very keen ears and could hear questions even when they were not asked.
Mr. Coggeshall is an English gentleman who has come to Bruges, Belgium for a short stay on business, accompanied by his two little girls, Melisande and Celeste.
The three Coggeshalls are living in a lovely, small hotel, Hôtel du Panier d’Or (Hotel of the Golden Basket). There they quickly become friends with Jan ter Meulen, the young son of the proprietors, with whom they have many small and large, funny and mildly-disastrous, adventures: catching flies for his meterological frog; exploring the fascinating contents of the pockets of Monsieur Carnewal — the kind, long-suffering maître d’hôtel; devising elaborate and sopping wet games of submarine in the hotel rooms; and exploring the wonders of Bruges and Brussels.
It is while out on a walk in Bruges that the Coggeshalls encounter a group of young girls. There are twelve of them, walking two by two in nice straight lines, led by their tall teacher, who is “never severe.” “The name of the smallest girl is Madeleine. Her hair is copper red” and she is a saucy, curious, pert young thing. These little girls all wear”dark blue dresses with white collars and cuffs, red belts, bow ties, and white straw hats with red ribbons.” This surprising, early glimpse of Madeleine comes three years before Bemelmans published his first story starring the plucky heroine. It is quite fun to meet her in Belgium for the first time in this chapter book.
The plot of The Golden Basket is simply a string of small stories about the three children’s adventures until, in the end, the little girls return to England. The joy of it comes from Bemelmans’ ability to see through a child’s eye, to know what intrigues, to describe anything from the curious objects in an old man’s pockets to the rows of spices in the hotel kitchen with clarity and exquisite precision, to bring wonder to a copper kettle, to create elaborate personages seen from a child’s vantage point as well as lively and imaginative children, to explore a European city’s landmarks, and to tackle these unusual subjects with humor and zest, while never talking down.
Bemelmans himself spent many years, from childhood through young adulthood, living and working in hotels, and his authentic details make The Golden Basket seem like quite a real place, with a chair red as a tomato, and a little boy named Jan busily counting the linen napkins.
The charming illustrations by Bemelmans bear the exact qualities of his Madeleine artwork which will tickle pink any young-or-old lover of that series. Full color and black-and-white, bold, youthful, personality-laden. I love them.
Bemelmans won a Newbery Honor for this book in 1937, which is how I found it — by searching my library’s archives for old Honor titles. It’s sadly out of print — why?! — and costs a small fortune used, but if you’re lucky, your library may have a copy or you might find one from inter-library loan. It’s about 100 pages of fresh jollity, and of particular interest to anyone who already loves Madeleine, ages 5 and up.
As a bit of P.S. — Amazon has terminated my Associate’s agreement with them because I live in Minnesota and our new tax laws are not to Amazon’s likings, best as I can tell. Thanks to those of you who have ordered from Amazon by clicking through from my account through the years, but my access is now kaput. As always, if you have the choice of buying from a local, independent bookdealer, that’s the best option; if you want to order on-line, you’ll have to search for the title yourself. Sorry for that inconvenience.