Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, has written a children’s book. The name of this children’s book, if you haven’t been keeping track of events in the royal and/or children’s book worlds, is The Bench. In The Bench, the titular ‘bench’ is actually a metaphor for “the special bond between father and son, as told from the perspective of the mother.” Move over, love being like an onion — love is now like a bench. Gentle watercolor illustrations by artist Christian Robinson depict a diverse range of dads and lads, some of whom resemble Prince Harry and little untitled Archie but most of whom don’t, sitting together on various benches (or, in one case, a wheelchair). Accompanying them is a little poem by Markle, which starts: “This is your bench, where life will begin, for you and our son, our baby, our kin,” carries on for around ten pages or so, and eventually ends with the words “you’ll never be ‘lone.”
The Bench was released in the middle of June, to coincide with Father’s Day — but, as the British tabloids have naturally been keen to emphasize — it hasn’t done particularly well. As the parent of a small boy who loves books, I’ve been spending quite a lot of time, since it re-opened, in the kids section of my local bookstore. I remember before The Bench was released, there were big signs dotted around the other books, urging people to reserve their copy of The Bench to make sure they didn’t miss out on The Bench, when said hotly anticipated Bench was finally released. In practice, however, the book only sold around 3,000 copies in its first week (still very good first-week sales for a children’s picture book, but you know), and is already being bundled in with buy-one-get-one-free deals. In the U.S., it did a bit better, debuting as the number one children’s picture book on the New York Times bestseller list (for whatever that’s worth), but still being subject to strongly negative reviews.
Here is where Markle went wrong: with the best will in the world, she wrote a children’s book that no actual child could ever possibly like. “The special bond between father and son, as told from the perspective of the mother.” What pre-schooler would ever be interested in reading a book about this? What pre-schooler would even understand it? If young children are lucky enough to have a good relationship with their dads, then it’s something that they pretty much take for granted. As far as my own son goes: that his mother would have any thoughts on our bond would never occur to him, let alone that it need take on the shape of a bench in an extended metaphor. As a young child, he tends to like his books to have catchy rhymes and a pacy meter, opportunities for shouting or tickling along with the action, and preferably to involve, in some way, buses or trains. The Bench offers none of this (maybe if the characters rode a bus to the bench, or if they’d gone to sit on the bench to watch the subway trains go by, that would be something).
I guess the thing is sweet, in a way. When I read it (full disclosure: flicked through it out of morbid curiosity a bit embarrassed to be displaying an interest in it at the bookstore), I had no doubt that the love for her family the Duchess was writing about was sincere. But as an actual book, as a commercial product, designed to be consumed by a mass audience, its sweetness can only feel cloying and trite. If I gave my son The Bench, and tried to read it to him, I know exactly what he would do: he would shake his head, take it from my hands, and shove it back on his little bookshelf, making sure to hide it behind some more favored books, to guard against my making the mistake of trying to waste his attention on The Bench again.
But I’m not the British tabloids. I’m not pursuing a vendetta against Meghan Markle for refusing to play the sadistic game I like to impose on people who I consider to be “in the public eye,” as if she is somehow getting away with being a celebrity without paying for it by being hounded possibly to her death, by me. The Bench is bad — but that’s not just on her as an individual. The Bench, I hold, is symptomatic of a deeper, societal disorder.
There is an increasingly obvious problem in the children’s books industry, whereby celebrity authors are able to attract big advances, and outsized promotional pushes, for books which are often simply no good at all. Given the sort of profile Meghan enjoys, and given that she recently took the decision, effectively, to go freelance from her previous position at the House of Windsor, it would have been incredibly surprising, in the present publishing landscape, if she had never done a deal to write a kid’s book. At some point, basically everyone in any way at all well-known has got one, from Madonna (The English Roses) to Lil Nas X (C is For Country) to Julianne Moore (Freckleface Strawberry).
Markle isn’t even the first royal to do one: an earlier celebrity kid’s books pioneer was Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson, whose Budgie the Little Helicopter series I remember from when I was was growing up, as an underwhelming addition to the already crowded early-’90s market in “Kid’s Book Series About Anthropomorphic Versions Of Usually Inanimate Things” (there was also a Shoe People series, who were shoes, a Poddington Peas, who were peas…).
It’s hardly surprising that this should be going on. Children’s books by celebrities make money. Celebrities, like many people, are liable to assume that they would probably be able to write a children’s book, even when they really, really, do not have the skills for this at all. Children’s books, especially those aimed at pre-schoolers, are not being bought by the people they are aimed at: attaching a celebrity name helps attract adults to the cover, while also serving, in a way, to reassure them. With a celebrity name, you know who the author is, what they stand for. For a half-known niece or nephew, they make a solid, lazy gift.
The real problem is that this trend has conspired to drown out other voices. Some celebrity kid’s books are actually pretty good, with the celebrity in question clearly having some sort of vocation for it (the most innovative examples tend to be by more minor celebrities, whose profile has opened doors with publishers and agents: think The Book With No Pictures, by B.J. Novak). But a lot of it is just The Bench-level dross, which ends up sitting on shelves at bookstores next to an established canon of big-name children’s authors (in the U.K. at least, the most obvious name is that of The Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson, who tends to get several rows of shelves solely dedicated to her work). To make matters worse, these books are often all illustrated by the same small selection of artists, thus giving the world of “things to read to your kids” an even more uniform feel.
Children deserve better than this. What they really deserve is artists: writers and illustrators who will provoke them to think differently about the world they are – yes – just beginning to learn about, and who will thus help them to understand it in a better, deeper way.
Luckily, at least some such figures are still, just about, allowed to exist. In April this year, a children’s book was published by a non-celebrity, which I think might be one of the most singular works of literature I’ve ever encountered. The book in question is called The Rock From The Sky, and it is by Jon Klassen — a writer and illustrator already known for the “Hat Trilogy,” of kids books in which a range of animals lose, steal, and find hats, and murder each other off-panel.
Compared to most children’s authors, Klassen’s style is muted and deadpan. In his picture books, the characters often barely move from panel-to-panel, a trick which allows him to extract vast wealths of visual humor from the merest of incremental adjustments. You might think this would not work with little kids, but flicking a page of Klassen will often reduce my son to hysterics. The Rock from the Sky is also sprawling, an epic by pre-school standards: spanning five chapters, and almost 100 pages (admittedly mostly taken up by pictures). For the most part, the action is rudimentary: three little animals in hats, only two of whom talk, meet in the desert and squabble as they try to find various spots to stand in, or to nap in, to watch the sunset from, as they narrowly dodge the meteors that periodically strike them from the sky. The rhythms of the book are that of Beckett’s masterpiece Endgame, re-jigged for kids but not dumbed-down: the games the animals play with one another resemble nothing so much as the bit in Endgame where the invalid Hamm is demanding that his manservant Clov move him to the exact centre of the stage.
And yet, from this, something beautiful emerges. At points, the reader is given a utopian glimpse into a verdant future, where maybe perhaps everything could be different — even if the animals are also, ultimately, terrified of it. The animals, it becomes clear, are us: alive under the looming shadow of their own doom; frightened of the future, even at their best too wrapped-up in themselves to grasp at anything better. People often wonder about how to tell their kids about climate change: The Rock From The Sky would be a good start.
It probably would have been possible to write a good children’s book both called, and about, The Bench. It’s just that the bench would need to be something like the setting from which a bunch of crochety little animals contemplate the Apocalypse. And then you would have needed to make that basic premise both funny and relatable to children. These are the sorts of possibilities that, if you are able to realize them, make interesting art. Alas, all the evidence suggests that God rarely has the good grace to bestow groundbreaking talent in writing for children on those who are already famous for doing other things — still less, for their association with the British royal family.
Lord knows it would be useful if He did, since if any of them did turn out to be artistic geniuses, the Windsors would definitely have the resources to bankroll their most daring, uncommercial innovations. But you know what, if any such brilliant royal were to emerge, I’m sure they would make themselves known. For the time being, talent spotters at children’s book publishing imprints should probably start focusing their energies elsewhere.
Tom Whyman is a philosopher and writer who lives in the North East of England. His first book, Infinitely Full of Hope: Fatherhood and the Future in an Age of Crisis and Disaster was published earlier this year.