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The mother of all role models

Published Oct. 4, 2003|Updated Sep. 1, 2005

With the successful publication of her children's book, The English Roses, Madonna morphs into yet one more life form: She's the next-generation Martha Stewart.

Here is what The English Roses is not: shocking. There's nothing shocking about it, except its shockinglessness.

Here is what the book is: a clever, if somewhat clunky, edge-free story of four pretty, petty-minded girlfriends who ostracize a fifth, the beautiful Binah, out of sheer envy. They cut her down. They ignore her. But eventually, with the help of a fairy godmother, they learn that Binah's life is not so blissful, and they invite her to join their clique. There's no blood, no bondage, no conical-comical bras.

It debuts at the top of the New York Times' children's picture book bestseller list Sunday. At midweek, it was the No. 3 seller on Amazon.com and No. 2 on Barnes & Noble's Web site. The book is available in 30 languages and in more than 100 countries.

Like Martha Stewart, Madonna teaches us how to live. Like Stewart, Madonna saturates mass market America. She went on Oprah to promote the book. Roses is being sold in Wal-Marts, discount stores and Toys "R" Us outlets across the land. GapKids has been giving a matching tote bag to those who buy the book and a bunch of other merchandise.

Can Madonna tea cozies and pillowcases be far behind?

And like Stewart, Madonna has made out _ monetarily _ on most of her ideas.

This time around, Material Girl is Maternal Girl. Mamadonna.

"Raising kids," Madonna, 45, says in a statement about the book, "makes most people, including myself, grow up at least a little. It also makes us more responsible and more thoughtful about our own actions and their consequences for those around us."

She adds: "Reading to my kids at night seemed like the ideal time to teach them a thing or two about life, love and the pursuit of happiness."

The woman who once begged her papa not to preach is now a preacher herself.

The book is short, if occasionally wordy, and gaily illustrated by Jeffrey Fulvimari. It's all very down-to-earth and domesticated.

From the jacket flap: "Madonna Ritchie was born in Bay City, Michigan. She has recorded 16 albums and has appeared in 18 movies. She lives with her husband, movie director Guy Ritchie, and her two children, Lola and Rocco, in London and Los Angeles." The book is dedicated to Lola (whose real name is Lourdes) and Rocco.

There is a lot, of course, that the flap doesn't say.

Now that Madonna is an author, her influence stretches beyond the boardroom and the bedroom to the baby's room. It seems like only yesterday she was feeling like a virgin. Today she's more like a sword-wielding magician, slicing through popular culture at all angles.

We have been bemused by Madonna's metamorphosis.

When we met her, around 1984, she was wearing all white and writhing like a snake. Good girl gone bad.

Through the 1980s she grew up a little faster than even bad girls should. By 1989, she was singing Express Yourself and prancing around in a black teddy and stockings. In 1992 she turned dominatrix in the Erotica video, donning a blindfold-mask and carrying a quirt. That year she published her first book: Sex. The New York Times was not impressed.

"Too bad she comes off like a CEO instead of a sex goddess," the reviewer wrote. "Madonna's book is less the display of an erotic imagination than a cliched catalogue of what the middle class _ her target audience, after all _ is supposed to consider shocking."

Like Martha Stewart, Madonna is always hawking a way of life that is just out of reach for most folks. Sex debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list and sold 1.4-million copies. Today Sex still sells: Copies are rare and go for $120 or more on the Internet.

Her ch-ch-changes continued. She was blond, brunette, redheaded and topless in the 1995 video for Bedtime Story. She played with politics in the 1996 movie Evita and with comedy in her 1999 video Beautiful Stranger with a song from the movie Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. In late August, she caused an uproar by kissing Britney Spears onstage at the MTV Video Music Awards.

Now she's starring in Gap ads, with rapper Missy Elliott, and wearing white again. This time the bad girl has gone good.

"The journey I have traveled between my Sex book and now is too vast and complex to define in a few sentences," Madonna says in her statement. "Suffice it to say that I see the world and my responsibility to it in a very different way."

As for her inspiration to write, Madonna credits her Kabbalah teacher, "who suggested that I share the spiritual wisdom I've learned studying the Kabbalah by writing children's stories."

Kabbalah is a set of mystical Jewish beliefs dating from the 12th century. According to the Kabbalah Centre International Web site, "the universe operates according to certain supremely powerful principles. By learning to understand and act in accordance with these precepts, we will vastly improve our lives today." The modern Kabbalah movement was founded in Jerusalem in 1922 by Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag, the site says.

Madonna's proceeds from Roses will go to the Spirituality for Kids Foundation, a Los Angeles organization that oversees camps and programs for adults and kids, including the Kabbalah Children's Academy.

On the group's Web site, Madonna says, "Since my daughter has been going to the Spirituality for Kids program I have noticed a profound change in her. She has become more loving and much more aware of her behavior and how it affects the world around her."

Throughout Madonna's public life _ the sex and the sects _ a generation of females has followed her peripatetic psyche. Witness the testimonials on Amazon.com.

"Madonna," a reader from Millersville, Md., writes, "I'm glad you put your wonderful storytelling talent on paper! I grew up loving you through music, now my children (I have three) can grow up loving you through your words and pictures."

Another writes: "Madonna is one of the most intelligent women to ever walk the planet. Anyone could learn something from her and her story, including your kids. Mine do! This is a great book."

Roses is the first of five children's books by Madonna. They are being published by Callaway Editions, a boutique New York publishing house.

The next book, Mr. Peabody's Apples, will go on sale Nov. 10. Three are planned after that. Callaway will not reveal the illustrator for Apples, but included in Roses is a publicity bookmark showing a man and a boy on a split-rail fence.

In the illustration, the kid seems to be freeing feathers from a pillow. It's a fanciful picture, yet safe and nonshocking.

The sky is a beautiful blue. Martha Stewart would approve.

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