Word on the street is, Madonna's grown up. Her latest children's book, Yakov and the Seven Thieves, due out tomorrow, isn't quite what you'd expect from a star known for racy club queen antics and concerts with as much shock value as singing. But if you know anything about the 45-year-old pop chameleon, you know you can't put a label on her.
(In fact, as she revealed Friday, you can't even just call her Madonna any more. A follower of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, she's adopted the name Esther as her religious name.)
The book's release coincides, with Madonna's aptly named Reinvention tour, one buzzed about for its lack of carnal content and abundance of political symbolism.
A slim, $19.95 hardback from Callaway Arts & Entertainment, it features a colorful cast of characters, enhanced by Russian artist Gennady Spirin's ornate and lively illustrations.
For starters, there's Yakov, a humble shoemaker overwhelmed by the beauty of his 18th-century eastern European village and the sorrow of his young son's illness.
Add a miracle-working old man, his young grandson and seven lively criminals -- including Stinky Pasha (smells like the horses he steals) and Boris the Barefoot Midget (pint-sized pickpocket who's afraid of the dark) -- and what results is a tender, albeit peculiar, tale of how to make a miracle happen.
The moral lies in the thieves' ability to heal Yakov's son through prayer, even when the nameless, magical old man is stopped short by heaven's locked gates. A blurb from Madonna inside the front cover is gently profound: "When we go against our selfish natures, we make miracles happen, in our lives and in the lives of others. We must never forget that hidden behind a large amount of darkness is a large amount of light."
But don't be fooled. Even though Madonna has shifted to humble advice-giver, Yakov and the Seven Thieves -- the third in her series of five children's books -- won't make its way modestly into bookstores. A major international media campaign will accompany the release, beginning with interviews on 20 / 20 and Good Morning America.
Publisher Nicholas Callaway said the media attention comes from Madonna's success and talent. "Her first two books have been global best sellers," he said. "She has an unusual gift for communicating with people."
Callaway might just be right. Her books, promoted as "stories for children of all ages (even grown-up ones)," the singer's tales clearly appeal to readers. In Yakov, she aims to capture some universal elements of humanity -- vulnerability, honesty and even dishonesty.
"This is a well-told story that has a timeless message," Callaway said. "I hope it will be not only as well-received, but as popular as the first two books."
Those books, The English Roses (September 2003) and Mr. Peabody's Apples (November 2003), are available in 38 languages, plus a Braille edition, and in more than 110 countries. The English Roses was a New York Times best seller for 18 weeks, and Mr. Peabody's Apples remained on the list for 10 weeks.
Two more books are already in the works. The Adventures of Abdi is scheduled to hit shelves in November. The other book, due out next April, at least suggests that the old Material Girl hasn't completely vanished. Its title: Lotsa de Casha.