Who are children’s books written for? They should entertain children, of course, but the best books are enjoyable for adults to read too, because we’ll be the ones reading them, day in and day out, until we can recite the whole library by heart.
The best books – the ones that parents and children bond over – are unexpected: they might have a rollicking rhyme, they might be slyly or even wickedly funny, they might have just the right level of sentimentality, so that they are sweet but not sickly, or they might be gloriously weird.
Perhaps the strangest – but not exactly unexpected – thing about The Bench, the children’s book written by Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, is that it appears to be written with only one reader in mind.
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The book is a love poem to a new father about the relationship he’ll enjoy with his son, written from the perspective of the mother. It limps along in a slow and clumsy rhyme: “Right there on your bench/The place you’ll call home…/With daddy and son…/Where you’ll never be ’lone,” it concludes, which doesn’t even make sense.
The watercolour illustrations, by the Caldecott-winning illustrator Christian Robinson, are beautiful, and are a celebration of diversity – there is a father and son in tutus practising their arabesques, a Sikh family and three black families, a dad in a wheelchair, a soldier returning home. But these are minor characters; the book opens and closes with an illustration of a ginger dad, with ginger stubble and a slightly ginger kid, who might be familiar. To ensure there’s no confusion, the ginger duo are surrounded by chickens, and in the background there is a coy figure with long dark hair cradling a tiny baby in a sling who – oh, what a coincidence – might be around the same age as Lilibet, born four days before the book was published.
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Meghan isn’t really in the background at all, of course – the story is told from her perspective, and in this way she’s on every page. This makes the title unintentionally comical – even ignoring that The Bench sounds like it could also be some new and gritty Netflix drama – written as it is by a relegated royal, no longer on the team. You’ve cut off ties to your extended family, Meghan appears to be telling Harry, but “you’ll never be ’lone”. This bench is your home now.
It is mind-boggling, really, how bad the book is. There is no story, just a series of platitudes about paternal love that at best might appeal to a highly emotional father, insecure in his new role. It fits into a genre of children’s literature that the children’s author Julia Donaldson has described dismissively as “books as medicine”, delivering a moral message that might be summed up as “love is nice” with the sugary efficiency of a syringeful of Calpol. And how many editors did it take to finally settle on the following rhyme: “He’ll learn to ride a bike/As you watch on with pride./He’ll run and he’ll fall/And he’ll take it in stride”?
Perhaps Meghan has fallen into the same trap as many new parents, who are puffed-up with confidence at their ability to invent stories for their own children and begin to wonder how hard it could be to write a children’s book. It could be less than 100 words. It doesn’t even have to rhyme. Surely anyone can do it? I imagine Prince Harry was touched by his wife’s heartfelt reflections on the father he will be to his son and newborn daughter. It makes for a beautiful gift – for Harry. Just not for anyone else.