The Duchess and baby Archie, who turns one today, reading his favorite book “Duck! Rabbit!” for the campaign Save with Stories to raise money for hungry children. Video / Sussex Royal
When a book is published entirely because of who the writer is – and when that writer happens to be Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex – I think any reviewer should have to state their allegiances at the outset.
So: I really like her. I smashed a lot of Suits circa 2014 and bought a lot of second-hand cashmere purely because of her character’s wardrobe. I really like Harry, and was delighted when they got together. I was delighted when they got out together, too, and I will click on any little tidbit or three-hour Oprah interview they’d like to throw me.
Another thing to be clear about is that Markle wrote the text for The Bench one month after having Archie. It’s a poem, a Father’s Day present for Harry. And it is exactly what you’d expect such a poem to be. Extra-sweet. Amateur. Aimed at a partner who’s just as dazed as you are, not a kid.
The result is one of those picture books that you’ll loathe reading out loud. There are dollops of synonym filler: “For you and our son / Our baby, our kin.” There are some really bumpy lines – of course there are, she’s not a poet and she just had a baby: “He’ll learn to ride a bike / As you watch on with pride.” Just occasionally, the rhythm trots along nicely. “He’ll run and he’ll fall / And he’ll take it in stride.” And then you’re thumping down again, toddler-style.
The word “joy” is used three times; the phrase “great joy”, twice. Both times, she rhymes “great joy” with “boy”. The last word is the worst one: ‘lone. “Alone” wouldn’t fit, so she chopped off the “a”. This is how you finish a poem when you are not a poet and you are a new mum and you are, quite understandably, done.
The whole thing has sleep deprivation and baby shock – and yes, great joy – written all over it. I picture Markle crying as she wrote it because I cried whenever I wrote anything for like two years after my kids arrived. But those first few weeks, with the first baby … well, that is a particularly disorienting, sideways time. I wish this poem, this very vulnerable, joyful and bad piece of writing, had stayed tucked in a treasure box somewhere, kept safe and special.
Instead it has been bundled up in hardback and draped about with gorgeous leafy paintings by an acclaimed illustrator and tastefully broadened in scope to “all dads” (its cast includes lots of different skin colours and body shapes; a father and son duo in tutus; a dad wearing a turban; a dad coming home in army fatigues; one in a wheelchair helping his kid put on their shoes, etc).
And now here is the book, out in the world, and with it a whole new onslaught of poison from Piers et al, and all just a few days after Lilibet was born. (I wouldn’t be surprised if the couple held back the book until they knew all was well with bub, because the closing spread shows Meghan with a new baby in a sling. Women who’ve miscarried do not take babies in slings for granted.)
As a picture-book user I’m very confident that this is not a book I’ll ever read to my kids, or buy as a gift. If we were given it I’d probably be so keen to have it out of the house that I’d do the unthinkable and exchange it.
Like so many bad picture books, this one is brought undone because of the words. After six years of reading picture books I have encountered huge numbers of them that have terrible text – terrible rhyming text, in particular – and I’m sick of the words not coming in for proper scrutiny. Why do we not care about the language we’re serving up to our kids? Why do we pour so much care and expertise into the imagery and design and production, but let writers get away with terrible, horrible, no-good very-bad words?
I am not a poet, so I sent the text of The Bench to Bill Manhire, who is, and he said, “Yikes. I think she needs some one-on-one coaching from Colin Craig.” I said no woman deserved that. He said, “Actually the person who really could teach her to write decent rhyming text is Lynley Dodd. She’s one of the few with perfect pitch.”
I thought Lynley Dodd might be too nice to weigh in, plus she shares a publisher with the duchess.
So next I sent it to Freya Daly Sadgrove, poet and children’s bookseller, and she said:
“Oof. Reading this thing out loud is like the gold rush ride at Rainbow’s End. (Jerky and deeply uncomfortable).
“Hell’s teeth, man. ‘You’ll sit on this bench as his giving tree?’ Why would a tree sit on a bench, Meghan. Why would you say that. You needed something to rhyme with knee and thought you’d pop a lazy metaphor in? The only one in the poem? That’s some sore thumb shit. Bloody speaking of which, that last line… ‘Where you’ll never be “lone”‘????? Why go to the trouble of squeezing it into metre when the scansion has been all over the place till then? Painful and upsetting.
“Oh man, I hate it so much. The thing is, it’d be lovely and sweet if it could’ve just stayed a Father’s Day gift. The thought would really count, you know? I’d be like, aw, if I happened to visit their house and saw it on the wall. It’s all lovely sentiments obviously. The poetry of it would still be bad but it’d be cute-bad. But publishing it is unforgivable. The pictures look really nice though.”
I sent it to Paula Green, poet and champion of poets and children’s books, well known as the kindest person around, and she said:
“On the day the finalists for the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults are announced, I am feeling slightly irked that poetry very rarely gets selected. Rarely gets published here in fact.
“I am musing on Elena de Roo’s sweetly crafted long poem published as a picture book that didn’t make the cut (Rush! Rush! One Tree House). Sure picture books are more than sentences that sound good when read aloud. You need other vital story ingredients. But boring clunky rhyme and stilted rhythms make me slam the book shut.
“So, although I could recognise the heart-moving sentiments and hopes of a mother with her newborn, Meghan needed to get her ear working when she wrote. The rhythms are awkward and the rhyme strained. It lessens the impact of a loving tribute. When I was recently talking with Jesse Mulligan on how to write a poem, I did say there were no rules. But I also suggested you take your whole body in as you write – your ears, eyes, mind and heart. Meghan just needed help tuning in her ears, and then would have produced a fabulous poem.”
After all that I messaged Briar Lawry (co-editor of children’s book site The Sapling, judge of the 2020 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young People, bookseller at Little Unity) and asked who would be buying the book and she said: “Honestly, it’s a bit of a mystery to me. Maybe Gen X mumtrepreneurs? Usually if it was a book by a royal I’d say it’s granny candy, but I don’t know if the royal-fan-grannies are Meghan fans, so. Hmm. Would be a different story if it were an unexpected literary marvel, but since it’s a little… lacklustre, it’s not going to grab the general public either. But Christian Robinson is a great name to have attached as an illustrator, so that might hook a few picture book aficionados who care more about the illos than the writing calibre.”
The Bench released in the UK a few days ago – perfect timing for their Father’s Day. We in the colonies have to wait until next Friday for the real thing, although the ebooks and audio books (read by the duchess) are available now. Will The Bench go well here? Is there a buzz? Lawry: “I hadn’t heard about it at all to be honest!” She added: “Honestly the cover says ‘bereavement book’ to me! Empty bench?!”
While we’re on benches: the opening spread is an illustration of Harry cradling a newborn Archie. They’re sitting on a bench and opposite are the words: “This is your bench / Where life will begin”. Does that make you think of, um, conception? Sure makes me think of conception. But then, as I say, I’m a fan.
– The Spinoff
– The Bench, by Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, illustrated by Christian Robinson (Puffin, $30) can be pre-ordered from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.