By Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex
Illustrated by Christian Robinson
The duchess formerly known as Meghan Markle brings a boatload of baggage to “The Bench,” a picture book about fathers and sons (and benches), starting with her uneasy position as a sort-of royal living in exile. There is also her status as Public Enemy No. 1 in the British tabloids, some of which seemed thrilled at the publication of a work that gave them an opportunity to rain fresh criticism upon her.
And there is the fact that she’s an actress, not a writer.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Many celebrities write books; even more celebrities write children’s books. (Maybe there should be a quota.) Some of them are great. But it goes without saying that being famous does not automatically bestow literary brilliance upon a person, as the public learned years ago after reading the “Budgie the Helicopter” series by another (now ex-) royal wife, the Duchess of York, a.k.a. Fergie.
To its credit, “The Bench” is a sweet little tale. Dedicated to “the man and the boy who make my heart go pump-pump,” it began as a poem Meghan wrote on Father’s Day for her husband, Prince Harry, soon after the birth of their son, Archie. (They have just had a second child, a daughter named Lilibet Diana.) It lovingly explores the emotional connection between fathers and their sons.
The bench — or benches; there are an array of them — plays a strong supporting role, as a seat, as a table, as a prop. It’s a slightly weird idea that a father would spend so much time on or near a bench, like a grandparent who never leaves his rocking chair, or an athlete stuck on the sidelines. But Meghan has envisioned the bench as a place for fathers to cradle their baby boys and maybe drift off to sleep, to put bandages on toddlers’ skinned knees, to provide comfort and encouragement.
The illustrations, in gentle watercolor, are by the talented and prolific Caldecott and Coretta Scott King honoree Christian Robinson, and they’re beautiful. Love pours out of them. Because Meghan wanted to be inclusive, according to the publisher, the book features a variety of fathers: Black fathers and white fathers, a father in a wheelchair, a Sikh father in a turban, a military father returning from a tour of duty (the mother observes the homecoming from a window, tears in her eyes). There’s even a father wearing a frilly pink tutu over a manly plaid shirt and brown pants, using the bench as a barre alongside his similarly tutu-ed son.
The benches throughout are likewise democratic, painted in a variety of colors and styles and appearing in suburban backyards, in public parks, on sidewalks, on the beach and, in two cases, indoors.
Meghan’s message is heartfelt, establishing that life is happy and sad, and that a father can be there for it all. But a heavier editing hand would have been a big help. There is no excuse, in a book of fewer than 200 words, for every syllable not to be just right. Even a tiny discordant note can throw the whole thing into disarray.
This is even more true with rhyming books. Force-feeding words into unlikely configurations just to eke out a tortured rhyme works about as well as stuffing a foot into a too-small glass slipper and passing it off as a perfect fit. “You’ll love him. / You’ll listen. / You’ll be his supporter. / When life feels in shambles / You’ll help him find order,” Meghan writes. It’s not terrible, but it’s not terrific. What she does in the last line of the book, though — contracting “alone” into “’lone” in order to get it to rhyme with “home” — should be illegal.
Still, gentleness prevails, and alert readers will notice that several illustrations are cunning simulacra of a bearded Prince Harry himself, with his ginger hair and piercing blue eyes. Harry’s recent complaints about his own father’s emotionally distant parenting style lend poignancy to the exercise, as if the book were written specifically to help a lost prince heal his psychic wounds.
It’s heartening to think of Harry and Archie happily feeding their rescue chickens together in California, as they do at the end, while Meghan (she’s seen from the back, but I’m pretty sure it’s her) swaddles the baby and does a bit of gardening. But as the book suggests, a father’s love is universal, royal or not.