Madonna, Author , illus. by Gennady Spirin. Callaway $19.95 (48p) ISBN 978-0-670-05887-7

Like Mr. Peabody's Apples , Madonna's new picture book was also inspired by a teacher (albeit one from the 18th century, according to an author's note on the flap) and profits from the work of a strong illustrator. The cobbler Yakov's only son, Mikhail, lies dying, and Yakov seeks help from the "wise old man who lives in the last house at the edge of the village" who "speaks to angels." The old man's prayers reach the gates of heaven, but "the gates were locked." He then sends his grandson Pavel into town to assemble "all the thieves, pickpockets, and criminals who live there." Here the book takes on a comic tone as the author describes the seven thieves. Spirin, working in his usual meticulously detailed style, lets out the stops with portraits of such characters as "big and fat and hairy" Vladimir the Villain, who busts out of his mishmash of clothing and attempts to bend a horseshoe, and Petra the Pickpocket ("her fingers were everywhere they were not supposed to be—especially in her nose"). "When they had all finished belching and farting and behaving like twits," the seven miscreants fall to their knees next to the old man, and the thieves' prayers pick the locks on heaven's gates. Spirin's wordless spread of the septet on their knees, a glow emanating from their faces, makes clear that the miracle will transpire. Once again the author drives home the message. "You see, the thieves represent the things in us that are bad or wrong or selfish," says the old man to Pavel. "And when we turn away from our naughty behavior and embrace good deeds, as the thieves did with their prayers, we are turning the key and unlocking the gates of heaven." Spirin's paintings carry the real magic with subtlety and insight. He renders with care the smallest features of 18th-century European town life: cobbler's nails, brass drawer-pulls, feather pens, children's toys. Even Madonna's soapbox approach can't tarnish Spirin's images, nor the wit of the original story. Ages 4-8. (June)

Reviewed on: 07/05/2004
Release date: 07/01/2004
Genre: Children's
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