Mabel, the very petulant, very young resident of the Mermaid Hotel, likes snacking on marmalade and butter, does not like ham, and is suspicious of the hotel's newest guest, the mysterious Madame Badobedah, in the peppy children's book of the same name by Sophie Dahl, illustrated by Lauren O'Hara.
The Mermaid Hotel is a seaside bed and breakfast, run by Mabel's parents. Mabel is an only child who spends her time casing the inn for secrets ("I don't have brothers or sisters; I have rooms," she tells the reader). So when the very old Madame Badobedah arrives at the hotel and checks into room 32 with a haughty accent, two dogs, two cats, a tortoise, and "twenty-three bags, all clustered around her like a choir," she becomes Mabel's biggest mystery yet to solve. Is Madame B. a supervillain or an ally in adventure?
"I was thinking about the relationship children have with their grandparents," says Dahl by phone from her house in Britain that had recently sprung a leak, "and how grandparents often have more time than parents, or more time for really deep imaginative play. It's very moving to me that connection between the young and the old." Both Mabel and Madame B. — the only adult who has time to take tea with Mabel — are marginalized, says Dahl. We don't listen to the very young or the very old: "They're often quite dismissed." So when Mabel and Madame B. climb through a closet in room 32 out into a sparkling mermaid cove — when the adult fully enters the child's vision — the poignancy jabs you underfoot ("Her eyes grew big. 'Oh, Mabel, how wonderful!' she said.").
Grandparents often have more time than parents [for children], or more time for really deep imaginative play.
Mabel is a pointy, spirited character drawn from Dahl's childhood as an "only," as well as the witty things her now-6- and 8-year-olds have uttered that she managed to write down. ("Children are saying constantly amusing and interesting and sometimes tiresome things and it just goes out the window" unless you scribble it onto paper, says Dahl, who usually fails to do so.)
Madame B., as she exists on the page, is based on the Patricias — the voice of Dahl's grandmother Patricia, and the attire of O'Hara's grandmother Patricia.
The book allows Mabel and Madame B. each their own reality.
"In Mabel's world, the Mermaid Hotel is quite different to [how it is in] Madame Badobedah's," explains O'Hara of the palettes she used. "So Mabel is always sea blue and primrose yellow and bright green and English coastal colors, whereas Madame B. is much more muted and dark and it's burgundy and gold." The hotel is a magic portal for young Mabel, who doesn't know a world beyond her parents, the hotel, and the path of "old-men trees, battered and bent by the wind and sea" out the back. At the same time, it is a terminus for the elderly guest, who with her twenty-three suitcases doesn't seem to be leaving, even as she seems to be living out her last great adventure.
We underestimate what they're capable of just taking in their stride.
In 1939, ahead of The Blitz, three children were evacuated from London to C.S. Lewis's house outside Oxford. Their arrival led Lewis to begin The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe, in which the Pevensie children find the magical land of Narnia on the far side of a wardrobe. The Chronicles of Narnia fit with other British books from that time that focus on the removal of children (Goodnight, Mr. Tom) and imaginative escape (The Faraway Tree), stories that allow kids to sort out the confusing aspects of life somewhere they can be the heroes.
Madame Badobedah wasn't written under war-time circumstances, but published into the current moment, in which many of the globe's guests have withdrawn to their living rooms to improvise with Amazon Prime boxes and reveal to their family members the full extent of their oddities, it seems a very useful and special piece of isolation fiction — a very welcome escape hatch.
This is Dahl's first outing as a kid's author (she has previously written cookbooks and is widely published as an essayist), and Mabel's voice is so sharp and funny and probing there will undoubtedly be many more voyages. As the reader follows Mabel through each chapter, they begin to infer more about Mabel's feelings, her loneliness, and her understanding of Madame B. "What does Madame Badobedah dream of?" wonders Mabel. "And in those dreams, is she old or is she a child?"
In the fiction that I grew up with, there is that wonderful nuance that it is as dark as it is light.
Straddling both places, Dahl gives young readers a lot of credit: "We underestimate what they're capable of just taking in their stride," she says, and it's hard not to think of the eccentric (to us) ways our children are coping with the boarding up of schools and playgrounds right now.
Dahl was drawn to work like Barbara Cooney's Miss Rumphius, which traces the "before" of an old lady by the sea, along with long-form children's books like the Eloise and Madeline series. "Certainly in the fiction that I grew up with, there is that wonderful nuance," Dahl says, "that it is as dark as it is light." The same could be said of her grandfather, World War II veteran and children's author Roald Dahl, whose work always allowed for the possibility of true harm, as well as wit and wonder.
O'Hara, whose first two children's books, Hortense And The Shadow and The Bandit Queen, were created with her sister, Natalia O'Hara, likewise looked backward at mid-century British illustrators when researching the book, looking at architecture from seaside towns, "flowers from that part of the world, and various wallpapers," O'Hara explains from the converted Dublin church she lives in with her cats and "a ghost." The effect is a world where all the little details appear like secrets on the page.
There is a difference between what's real and what isn't in the illustrations, says O'Hara, "but I didn't want to delineate it too much because I wanted it to very much feel like all of this was part of this amazing, exciting world that Mabel lives in and inhabits, and that's full of her imagination."
And in the end that's the book's biggest feat. The Mermaid Hotel feels like somewhere you can go, at a time when you are allowed to go nowhere, shook from Mabel's imagination and Dahl's deep rememberings. "I'm quite sensory and I'm also very nostalgic," she explains. "If you were to say, 'Remember being at the beach?' I'll remember the smell of a cabana at the beach or the smell of sun cream mixed with kind of different scents in the loo."
Look back on those moments when you can recall an adult stepping into your world, instead of asking you to accede to theirs, and everything comes back to life — the wallpaper, the lipstick, the fascination around what their life might have held before you. Everything is sunnier and brighter and splashed with possibility. Mabel knows how to get there.
Madame Badobedah is out April 7 from Candlewick Press.
MADAME BADOBEDAH. Text © 2019 Sophie Dahl. Illustrations © 2019 Lauren O'Hara. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.