The English Roses
The English Roses book cover
|Cover artist||Jeffrey Fulvimari|
|Series||The English Roses|
|September 15, 2003|
|Followed by||The English Roses: Too Good to be True|
The English Roses is a children's picture book written by American entertainer Madonna, released on September 15, 2003, by Callaway Arts & Entertainment. The publication company's owner Nicholas Callaway had always wanted the singer to write a children's book. Madonna took up the opportunity after her second marriage and being inspired by her Kabbalah teacher and her studies of the religion. She wanted to write stories where the female protagonists had a more active role than the traditional fairy-tales. Madonna presented five stories to Callaway, who chose The English Roses as the first to be published.
The book and its characters were named after Madonna's daughter Lourdes' school friends at Lycée Franco-Libanais Tripoli. It talks about four friends, who are jealous of a girl called Binah. However, they come to know that Binah's life is not easy and decide to include her in their group. A moral tale, Madonna drew from her own personal experiences while writing The English Roses, including the death of her mother at an early age. The picture book was illustrated by Jeffrey Fulvimari, who drew them as spontaneous line drawings.
Callaway released the book simultaneously in more than 100 countries worldwide and translated to 30 languages. It was accompanied by promotional activities with Madonna hosting a tea party at London's Kensington Roof Gardens, as well as an appearance in television talk shows and book signings. Commercially, The English Roses debuted atop The New York Times Children's Bestseller list and sold over a million copies worldwide. However, it received mixed reviews from book critics who did not find the story interesting, panned the characterizations and the moralistic way it was written. Fulvimari's illustrations also received a mixed response. Madonna went on to release merchandise associated with The English Roses, and further sequels of the book.
The English Roses are four girls—Charlotte, Amy, Grace, and Nicole—who attend the same school in London, live in the same neighborhood and do the same activities together, including attending summer picnics and ice-skating in winter. They are jealous of a girl called Binah, who lives nearby since they believe that her life is perfect. The girls detest her beauty and popularity in school and enjoy ignoring Binah while concocting naughty plans against her.
One day, the mother of one of the Roses lectures the girls about judging people on the basis of their looks. That night, as the English Roses are at a picnic sleepover, all four girls have the same dream where they are visited by a pumpernickel fairy godmother. She sprinkles the girls with magic dust and transports them to see Binah's life in her home. The girls find that contrary to their belief, Binah is actually lonely. Binah's mother died when she was young, and she lives with her father in a small house where she cooks and cleans for a living. The fairy godmother admonishes the English Roses and asks them to think better about someone in the future, rather than complaining about their life.
The English Roses feel bad about their behavior towards Binah, and invite her to join their group. Soon they strike up a good friendship with her and go on picnics, dances, parties together. The girls share with Binah all that they like and the story ends with there being five English Roses now as Binah joins them.
Background and writing
—Madonna talking about collaborating with Nicholas Callaway.
Madonna's first release as an author was the coffee table book Sex in 1992, published under her company Maverick and Callaway Arts & Entertainment. It consisted of sexually provocative and explicit images, photographed by Steven Meisel. The book received a negative reaction from the media and the general public but sold 1.5 million copies quickly. With the release of Sex, Callaway became a well-known publication, and its owner Nicholas Callaway looked for opportunities to expand the business further. He believed that he had "a certain ability to see ahead... I do have a sense of what would interest people – even before they sense that interest". He remembered watching Madonna read one of his published books, David Kirk's Miss Spider's Tea Party, during an event in March 1995 at New York's Webster Hall, for the release of the music video of her single, "Bedtime Story". Calling it a pajama party, Madonna read the story to an audience consisting of teenagers, with the event being aired on MTV.
Callaway found the singer's ability to tell a story as enticing, and he got an idea to ask her about writing children's books. The publisher believed that Madonna's worldwide recognition would help in attaining cross-cultural appeal for a book written by her. He was persistent about the idea, although knowing that children's book critics can be fussy. At that time Madonna had other commitments, and it was only after her marriage to director Guy Ritchie and becoming a mother again (in 2000), that she decided to take up the idea of writing children's books. Madonna's Kabbalah teacher had asked her to share the wisdom she had gained through her studies of the religion, in the form of stories meant for children. The singer found this to be a "cool challenge," although it was completely left-field than her musical endeavors. While reading out stories to her children at bedtime, Madonna found that there was a lack of spiritual messages in the books. She also felt that fairy-tale characters like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty appeared passive in the stories, being moved around according to the princes' wishes. Madonna, who was inspired by stories from Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Flannery O'Connor, was galvanized to write something new by herself. She wrote and sent the manuscript of five stories at the same time to Nicholas Callaway, suggesting them to be published together. But Callaway wanted each story to be developed and released separately.
Development and inspiration
In March 2003, it was announced that Madonna and Callaway Arts & Entertainment had signed a deal with Penguin Group for publishing an original series of five illustrated storybooks for children. The first release under this deal was The English Roses. The book and its characters were named after Madonna's daughter Lourdes' school friends at Lycée Franco-Libanais Tripoli. One of the teachers there had described the girls as "The English Roses" which Madonna found "funny." She had already progressed with a few other stories but wanted to write about girls who always felt they did not have "enough." The death of Madonna's mother at an early age had always affected her, including her musical endeavors. So while developing Binah, she drew from her own experiences of dealing with her mother's death. Like her, Binah kept a picture of her mother beside her bed. It was Madonna's "own personal experience and I needed to come up with things for her character where kids would stop and go, 'Wow! What would that be like?'" Binah's character was also influenced by Lourdes since Madonna felt that at school she was often ostracized for being her daughter. Finally, The English Roses became a moral story with messages from Kabbalah, deduced from tales that Madonna had heard from her teacher. She also included messages about the perils of envy, ostracization, and assumption of other's lives.
For The English Roses, Madonna worked with illustrator Jeffrey Fulvimari, whose work on the book was described by Ginny Dougary as "Madeleine meets David Hockney style." Fulvimari described his work for the book as "expressive, light-hearted, and feel free to have fun in a way that is not as acceptable in work targeted to grown-ups." He first created rough drawings and then transferred them to computers, where he could tweak them. The net result made the images appear like "spontaneous" line drawings. The artist first painted the four The English Roses with their characters "fully fleshed out." Fulvimari exchanged the rough sketches with Madonna and Callaway, who gave their feedback numerous times before the final selections.
Publication and promotion
Callaway released the picture book on September 15, 2003, simultaneously in more than 100 countries worldwide and translated to 30 languages. The English language rights of the book was acquired by Penguin with the books published by Puffin, the children's imprint of Penguin Group UK. The press release explained that each of the story books would involve Madonna working with a different illustrator. Madonna confirmed that all profits gained from the sales of the book were to be donated for charity. She partnered with Amazon and recorded an exclusive audio message pertaining to the book for Amazon's customers. The message was available from September 3, and was the first opportunity for customers to hear the singer talking about The English Roses. The singer appeared at multiple promotional events, reading aloud from the book to children. In the United States, Madonna appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and book signing events at Barnes & Noble store in New York City's Rockefeller Center. She also appeared at a news conference in Paris for promoting the release.
The book was not available to the press and media for advance reading. Puffin employed Coleman Getty Public Relations for the launch, who faced difficulty in promoting the material since information about the storyline was not allowed in the press releases. Nicky Stonehill from Coleman Getty—who only had an hour to discuss the PR strategy with Madonna—used the media hype surrounding the release and struck up an exclusive deal with The Times where excerpts from the book was given. On the day of the release, she threw a promotional tea party at London's Kensington Roof Gardens, inviting friends and celebrities. A pink, sparkling carpet welcomed the guests, flanked by fences adorned with roses and butterfly figurines. At the party, Madonna—dressed in a white satin frock—read out from the book to a crowd consisting of teenagers and young children, and later gave them gift baskets. Coleman Getty's idea was to have the literary press read the book for the first time at the party, and write about the reaction it generated among the children. They allowed only one photographer inside to take pictures of the event, and only the film crew from the BBC's children's news program, Newsround, were allowed to film the event. The next day, courier services delivered copies of the book to television talk shows like GMTV and RI:SE, so that it could be discussed during the program.
Initial print runs for The English Roses in the United States exceeded from the projected 400,000 copies to 750,000 copies with a total of one million worldwide. It was the biggest release for a picture book, at over 50,000 bookstores, record stores and other retail chains in the United States, with initial sales being reported as "impressive" on websites like Amazon. It was sold at clothing chain Gap Inc. whose profits were sent to the Spirituality for Kids Foundation. One week after the release the print run in the United States crossed 900,000 copies and 1.4 million worldwide, with numerous publishers asking for reprints. Diane Roback from Publishers Weekly reported large sales from Barnes & Nobles and Borders Group stores.
The book debuted atop The New York Times Children's Bestseller list, selling 57,369 copies in its first week according to Nielsen BookScan. It was placed at number five on the overall ranking for all releases. The book was present on the list for a total of 18 weeks and had sold 321,000 copies by October 2004, which accounted for 70% of all tracked sales across the United States. In the United Kingdom, The English Roses sold 8,270 copies according to BookScan and was ranked number 17 on the top-selling list. It was the second best-selling children's book, with 220 copies fewer sales that author J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Worldwide the book went on to sell a million copies by April 2005.
The English Roses received moderate reviews after its release. Ayelet Waldman from Tablet questioned whether Rabbi Baal Shem Tov, whose morals were the inspiration behind Madonna's writing endeavors, did really ask "to be nice to pretty girls because their lives might be harder than ours." The reviewer noted Jewish influences in the story with the name Binah, and the character calling her father as "papa" and wearing a "shmatte" on her head. Kate Kellaway from The Observer described the story as "written in language that veers between Hilaire Belloc and breakfast TV," finding the tone as arch and strained but containing a charm. She found that Fulvimari's illustrations made the book look like "a party invitation with his pictures of a garlanded, girly existence: each English rose a fashion-plate, with a doe-eyed stare, caught up in a whirl of blue butterflies, yellow clouds and fairydust." A reviewer for the Publishers Weekly compared Fulvimari's illustrations to the images in Vogue while saying that the story was preaching in nature.
David Sexton from London Evening Standard criticized Madonna's decision to write the story, including making the character of Binah a beautiful looking girl, since he believed that in reality "the children who suffer wounding rejection from their peers are not the beautiful, the clever and the sporty, but the ugly, the dull and the awkward". The images were described as "sub-Warholian" and "distinctly perverse", with Sexton panning the characters for looking anorexic. Writing for The Guardian, poet and novelist Michael Rosen found The English Roses to be heavier on the moralistic side rather than being ironic, which he felt was the norm for children's books. In the same article, author Francesca Simon found that the book "has no characters, no story and there is no tension, which is a problem." Both of them criticized Fulvimari's illustrations with Rosen describing them as "odious pictures." Emily Nussbaum from New York found Binah's character as "the blandest, most passive good-girl on Earth, the opposite of Madonna" and felt that by writing the book, the singer was in a way admonishing her older provocative self.
Madonna's narration was described by Ginny Dougary from The Sunday Times Magazine as "bossy" who also found parallels with the singer's childhood in The English Roses. Slate's Polly Shulman found the book to be "charmless, didactic" and egoistic since she felt it revolved around Madonna and her daughter. Shulman also added that "The English Roses is a dull little thing, though not incompetent. Madonna does understand the basic structure of storytelling—perhaps too well," with multiple cliches present while making the titular characters "so passive that they might as well be good." David Kipen from San Francisco Chronicle humorously said that the "last time a five-book series launched with such a bang, the first installment was called Genesis." Kipen found Madonna's characterization of Binah as a beautiful girl to be redundant, and her "inexplicable ostracism is exactly the kind of storytelling gaffe an inexperienced writer runs into when patching together an alter ego out of different, not altogether compatible phases in that writer's life." The reviewer described Fulvimari's drawings as a "witty, busy style that recalls the celebrated filigree of Ronald Searle, and the almond-eyed womanhood of the I Dream of Jeannie (1965) credit sequence".
Aftermath and sequels
Madonna partnered with Signatures Network Inc. (SNI) and launched a series of merchandise and products related to The English Roses series at United States' Nordstrom department stores and boutiques. It included footwear, clothing apparel, rainwear, collectible dolls, tea sets, jewelry boxes, and calendars. From October 2004, Nordstrom created in-store programs themed around the books, including tea parties and fashion shows. Madonna also launched a website dedicated to the series, where the merchandise was available. The website was filled it with interactive games, downloadable wallpapers, character list and feedback page.
In September 2006, Madonna announced plans of releasing a sequel to the story, titled The English Roses: Too Good to be True. Another picture book, it was illustrated this time by Stacey Peterson instead of Jeffrey Fulvimari. The hardcover first edition was published by Callaway on October 24, 2006. Madonna was compelled to write the sequel after being requested by Lourdes continuously. The story continued with the girls encountering their first romantic crush and again learn a valuable lesson. The English Roses: Too Good to be True sold only 9,000 copies in a month since its release according to BookScan, and its fewer sales were attributed due to Madonna being embroiled in a controversy for the adoption of her son David, from Malawi. She continued publishing chapter books in the series, with another 12 books published from 2007–2008.
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