In the children’s section of Lake Zurich’s there is a book called Madeleine’s Light, recounting a period in the life of a 19th century French sculptor named Camille Claudele. In the same children’s section, author Natalie Ziarnik works as the head librarian. It makes for a happy coincidence for the children who’ve read the books and want to offer kudos to the writer.
“That’s what’s so exciting about working at the library is that they’ll come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I read your book. I like your book,’” said Ziarnik. “It’s really been neat to happen here.”
The story focuses on the relationship between the artist and a young girl named Madeleine who became the inspiration for Claudele’s work La Petite Châtelaine (The Little Lady). “This is from Madeline’s point of view when the sculptor comes to her house to spend the summer and how she teaches her how to sculpt,” said Ziarnik.
“I became intrigued by the relationship between Camille Claudel and Madeline,” Ziarnik said. “How Madeline had inspired her art to go in a different direction.”
The book recently was published by Boyds Mill Press and is the culmination of years of study and work. “I was introduced to Claudel’s work a long time ago when I was teaching English in France and then when my son signed up for a sculpting class. I remembered and I thought I’d read her biography and some books about her,” said Ziarnick.
“I was reading about her for quite a while and taking notes,” Ziarnick recalled. “First I was trying to do a straight picture book/biography about her and then that changed into a novel in verse which became very depressing because she had a sad time later in life. I just got so down that I put that outside.”
Upon further reflection, Ziarnick realized that although the artist’s life took many unfortunate turns, there was still a story within it that might appeal to children. “She had a very difficult, tragic life, but not every moment of her life was difficult and tragic," Ziarnick said. “There were moments that were beautiful and wonderful and this is one of them.”
Much as Claudele’s sculpture took on a new focus during her time with Madeleine, Ziarnick’s artistic focus proceeded in a new direction upon her epiphany. “I took one of the poems I had written in the novel in verse and put that into a picture book,” she said.
Ziarnick acknowledges that the book’s subject is slightly unorthodox, especially in the highly competitive world of children’s books. “They have to be interested in sculpture or interested in France,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of art teachers express an interest in it.”
Yet, Ziarnick’s interest in Madeleine’s point of view was based on her experiences as a child whose father brought home many eccentric and well-known people as the result of his job as head of a lecture series. “He had them come to dinner, or sometimes stay with us. Some of these people were very unusual. As a kid you’re very curious about that,” she said.
Ziarnick flipped through Madeleine’s Light and stopped at one of Scottish illustrator Robert Dunn’s rendering of young Madeleine peeking around the threshold of a door. “I was always like this. This is something I was always doing as a kid,” she said. “It was like, who is this person? Someone was a magician; he brought (poet) Gwendolyn Brooks. I think it made me wonder, what was it like for this girl to have this passionate woman and all this clay?”
The female focus of the story is intentional, according to Ziarnick. “I feel like women artists don’t get enough attention,” she said. “I remember taking art classes in college and you study all these men and there’d be like one woman. I felt like she did all this beautiful work and Roudin got a lot of her credit.
“She worked for him and did a lot of his work for him,” Ziarnick explained.
Although the book’s focus is the unique relationship between Madeleine and Claudele, who was said to have been remote and unfriendly, the subtext is a lesson about symbiotic friendships and the importance of nurturing creativity. “The core of the story is how the two gained something from their relationship,” Ziarnick explained. “The girl learned to sculpt and Camille started to look at the inner spirit of someone in her art and to try to bring that across. It was a spiritual way of looking at art.
“This is mostly about creativity and taking the chance to try and make something,” she added. It is “about the struggle you go thru when you’re developing your artistic style.”
Ziarnick’s hope is that when aspiring young artists read Madeleine’s Light they come away with a hopeful message: “Be brave and give it a try and see what you think.”