Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, is having a good week. Following hot on the heels of the birth of daughter Lilibet Diana, is her next baby: children’s book The Bench. Not one to make us mere mortal mothers feel like we’re not doing enough, the book was created around a poem she wrote for her husband for his first Father’s Day with Archie, and suitably, the book dedication (‘for the man and the boy who made my heart go pump pump’), as well a couple of the illustrations, are dedicated to the pair.
With soft rhymes and gentle watercolours about the loving bond between father and son, all rooted around that humble piece of furniture found in every home and park, it’s a metaphorical expansion on the royal-not-royal couple’s guided tour round the chicken coop with Oprah. The thing that tells you, we’re a family, we’re just like everyone else. But this time, in illustrative form, it doesn’t feel so polarising.
The book does feel timely: where many recent pre-school books have been focussed on the essential education around black history and feminist storylines, we’re at a crux point in teaching boys better. This is not simply a book from a (usually white) boy’s point of view, as most were when I was growing up. In telling stories about deep emotional male connection, Meghan is not only modelling emotional openness to young boys and girls, but to their fathers too.
As I leafed through the book with my husband and two and a half year-old daughter, I asked her what she liked about the book. She told me she enjoyed that it was a story about father and son who love each other, and instantly thought that Prince Harry was her own daddy. The fact that young readers of all backgrounds will place themselves in the story is key.
The washy, watercolour illustrations - by Caldecott medal winning American artist Christian Robinson, best known for his book Josephine, about 1920s performer and civil rights activist Josephine Baker - are subtle, emotionally provocative and extensively diverse. They called to my mind popular picture book The Girls, by Lauren Ace and Jenny Lovlie in both their styling and their inclusive range. I especially loved the illustration of the dad and son practicing their high legs against a park bench in tutus, challenging gender conventions, though perhaps in a slighter way than my favourite recent bestseller Julian is a Mermaid.
The Duchess of Sussex’s writing is soothing, loving, although a little schmaltzy in places, but did at one point bring a tear to my eye (did I mention I’d been up since 5am with my daughter?). Because, while these more emotional rhyming books in our daughter’s library are usually directly written to and about the apple of your eye, this one is written to the parent, as a reminder of all of the joy and learning that child-rearing brings. ‘When life feels in shambles, You’ll help him find order’, reads one line, which spoke expressly to my own frazzled head, but also to the growing anxiety in children.
But the biggest statement to the family the Sussexes have left behind comes from the line ‘You’ll tell him “I love you”, Those words always spoken.’ While Harry’s father Prince Charles famously once said, ‘whatever in love means’ about his new bride Diana, we’re being told that Harry will be telling their children he loves them a million times a day just like the rest of us. And then there I was blubbing, like the mother pictured looking out at the suspiciously Prince Harry-ish dad in his military uniform swinging his child high on an emotional return from duty.
As the book closes, we find ourselves back at the chicken coop. There is that familiar smiling strawberry blonde man, and his toddler son looking up adoringly at him, feeding the birds, a dog lopping behind. The dark-haired mother figure, new baby strapped to her chest is tending to the garden beyond with her back to the reader. The closing line with its abridged ‘lone doesn’t read so well in an English accent as it might do in American, but the sentiment of togetherness does. I for one am looking forward to reading what Meghan has in store for Lil Diana…
The Bench is out now, £12.99, Penguin Random House Children’s UK