Madonna's new children's book.

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 30 2003 12:09 PM

The Material Girl Gets Immaterial

The social nuances of The English Roses.

Book cover

Like many children of celebrities, Madonna tells us, the Material Girl's daughter, Lourdes, had a problem: The other kids teased her about her mother.

As child-rearing quandaries go, this is a toughie. What's a celebrity to do?

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Madonna's answer was to write a children's book that preaches tolerance toward girls who are prettier, smarter, kinder, better at sports, and generally more special than you. There are no ugly ducklings with the souls of artists here, no slobby Shreks who turn into heroes, just attractive preadolescents obsessed with the nuances of their social status.


The English Roses
is written from the point of view of four girls—the Roses of the title, whom Madonna says she named for a group of girls who go to school with Lourdes in London. The book's Roses hang out together and pointedly ignore Binah, a blond beauty with milk-and-honey skin, top grades, athletic talent, a good heart, and no friends. One day the mother of one of the Roses lectures the girls about judging people on the basis of their looks. That night, a fairy godmother grants them a vision of Binah's private life. Binah, it turns out, has lost her mother; her father makes her scrub the floor, cook dinner, and do the laundry. Conscience-struck, the Roses decide to be nice to Binah after all, and the book ends with five English Roses instead of four.

Great! Now Lourdes is the daughter of that woman who sings all those pop songs, carries on at music awards, published kinky nude photos of herself, and wrote a charmless, didactic book about how much smarter, prettier, etc., etc., her heroine is than other girls. A month ago there were kids—a few, anyway—who hadn't heard of Madonna. No longer—with a million copies of the thing in print, there's no hiding from her. Thanks a whole lot, Mum.

Madonna says she drew her inspiration for The English Roses not just from her daughter's experience, but from the "spiritual wisdom" she found studying the Cabala. "My creativity was not motivated by ego or greed for the first time in my life," she writes in the book's publicity material. Royalties from those million copies will go to a foundation that teaches children spirituality, which covers the greed part of Madonna's statement. The ego part seems more complex—however you read it, the book still revolves around Madonna. If Binah is meant to represent Lourdes, then Madonna avoids taking responsibility for her daughter's trouble by making Binah's problem be the absence of a mother rather than her overwhelming presence. On the other hand, if Binah represents the author (who lost her own mother at an early age), then she's glorifying herself all over again, this time with an air of virtue instead of transgression.

Its author aside, The English Roses is a dull little thing, though not incompetent. Madonna does understand the basic structure of storytelling—perhaps too well. Cliché follows cliché. Her only unusual move is to tell the Cinderella story from the stepsisters' point of view. But she makes the jealous meanies so passive that they might as well be good: All they really do is respond to lectures about virtue. They're not out there twisting anyone's hair. And the central lesson is muddled and implausible. For one thing, judging by the sugary pictures, Binah is barely distinguishable from the original four Roses—except for hair color, skin color, and eye color, they're identical: all skinny and chicly dressed, with almond-shaped eyes and no noses. It's hard to imagine what the other four see to envy in Binah.

In any case, Madonna's answer is not to show that envy is bad but to suggest that people who look as though they have it all are secretly miserable. What about pretty, lucky little girls whose fathers don't neglect them and make them scale fish—is it OK to ostracize them? In my experience, pretty little girls have plenty of friends. Other girls might envy them, but they seek them out anyway, hoping (perhaps) that the pretty will rub off on them. Madonna's publishers must be banking on this very phenomenon—otherwise, why would they have published this book?

Polly Shulman is the author of Enthusiasm, a novel for young adults.