To say that "Yakov and the Seven Thieves" is the best book Madonna has written to date is much like saying, "Ibberty flibberty gibberty goo". Which is to say, it's not saying much. Now, it is very difficult for a reviewer such as myself to read and review this book without pounds of prejudice weighing on my head. I'll be perfectly honest with you: I am a librarian. One of the thousands that took offense when Madonna announced that her reason for writing children was as follows: "Now I'm starting to read to my son, but I couldn't believe how vapid and vacant and empty all the stories were". Presumably Madonna must've been reading the latest "Dora the Explorer" to her son. Or perhaps she had been given a copy of "Love You Forever". In any case, this inane reason for writing some picture books of her own spawned some of the foulest bits of treacle ever to grace the shelves of bookstores and libraries worldwide. If you think "Rainbow Fish" sends a poorly spelled out message, I assure you that it has NOTHING when compared to Madonna's hokey schmaltz-fest "Mr. Peabody's Apples".
So as you can see, I'm not exactly an unbiased reader. Still, "Yakov and the Seven Thieves" looked different from her other stories. Unlike "The English Roses" (moral: Pretty people are nice too) and "Mr. Peabody's Apples" (moral: In small town America, gossip is naughty) this story looked a little classier. It was written as a fable (good), with a delightful illustrator at the helm (good) and some really original elements in terms of characters and descriptions (very good). Then I got to the end of the tale and the whole kerschmazzle blew up in my face. Though she definitely starts strong and has a good idea of what her plot shoudl be, in the end "Yakov and the Seven Thieves" is still weakety weak weak.
In this tale, there was once a poor cobbler named Yakov. Yakov had a single son whom he loved very very much. Unfortunately the boy was often sickly and weak. In desperation, Yakov searched out the wisest man in town, an older gentleman who lived with his grandson alone. The wise man hears Yakov's problem and attempts to pray to God to save Yakov's son. This doesn't go particularly well and Yakov is distraught. In a moment of inspiration, the wise man tells his grandson to gather the most despicable thieves in town and bring them to his home. The seven thieves comes (apparently thieves are religious at heart) and when asked by the old man to pray for Yakov's son. They do so, the son is miraculously cured, and a sappy message about how the thieves were symbolically opening the gates of heaven sums the book up. Then there's an odd tacked on ending in which a thief named Boris the Barefoot Midget returns the grandson's stolen shoes and, when told he can keep them, scurries down the road. The end.
I'm a big big fan of a well told folktale and for quite some time Madonna was doing really well on this story. She has a nice section at the beginning about how Yakov enjoyed the scenery of his home, "the magical forests, the crystal-clear streams, and the majestic snowcapped mountains that rose before him in the distance". She does especially well when describing the different thieves (with the possible exception of the somewhat offensive Boris the Barefoot Midget). But Madonna isn't particularly good at summarizing the morals of her tales. Though it sounds funny to hear it, Madonna is the preachiest children's author I've ever read, outside of Christian fiction itself. If you're into incredibly didactic religious picture books, methinks "Yakov" is for you. The book ends happily because the thieves, afraid that the wise old man is magical and potentially dangerous ("Was he a wizard?... Did he have magical powers?") suddenly decide that because he's sincere (they're bad guys... but not too bad) they should pray for a little sick boy they've never seen.
Some people will be very touched by this tale. Others will find themselves stumbling a little over the stilted language employed (I dare you to find a single contraction in this entire book). Still more will enjoy the book, get to the ending, and find themselves uncomfortable with its overly earnest preaching. Now, the illustrations in this puppy are fan-freakin'-tastic, no question. They're beautifully rendered and bring a lifelike vibrancy to the various sundry thieves. My favorite shot in this tale, bar none, is the picture of the Angel of Death hovering over the sleeping sick lad. This is a gorgeous tale to flip through. If you'd like to just buy the book and cut out the pictures to frame on your wall, that would undoubtedly be the best use of this creation. Just don't bother reading it or anything.
I'm being rather harsh, I admit. As I mentioned before, I'm biased. I don't know how much a biased review is worth to you. But as long as you understand exactly where I'm coming from, this review should give you some kind of an indication as to how good or bad Madonna's third book is. I have said that it's the best of the three she's written so far. Still, if you want a picture book that tells a didactic fable about faith in a cold Russian land, try the Caldecott winning (and mind-blowingly illustrated) "Baboushka and the Three Kings" by R. Robbins. If you want a picture book that tells an amusing and original folktale, try the outrageous "Swamp Angel" by Anne Isaacs (more of a tall tale than a folktale admittedly) or the fabulous "It Could Always Be Worse" by Margot Zemach. And if you want a picture book written by a pop star with seemingly little experience writing good books for children but that is just a tinge more saccharine than is comfortable, try the tepid, "Yakov and the Seven Thieves".