Put aside for a moment the much-discussed issue of cultural appropriation in children’s books. How about worrying about celebrity appropriation instead? It’s hard enough these days for dedicated authors who take their craft seriously to make a living. So it seems particularly heartless for already wealthy celebrities to muscle in here, taking up valuable space in bookshops while benefiting from the free publicity normally surrounding everything they do.
It would be different if the books they provided were any good, but almost universally they are not. Who now remembers Madonna’s awful picture books, Russell Brand’s mangling of The Pied Piper of Hamelin or Frank Lampard’s terminally lame Magic Football series? As for the Davids Walliams and Baddiel as children’s comic writers – why not go straight to Roald Dahl and cut out all imitators?
And now we have a new entry to this mostly sorry crew – Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. Whatever else is going on in her life, she stands or falls in this instance simply as a children’s writer, and as such she crashes well before getting to the first post. The text for The Bench is dreadful, leaving American illustrator Christian Robinson with the hopeless task of trying to extract a silk purse from what soon reveals itself as the literary equivalent of a sow’s ear.
Let’s start with the story. A father who looks like Harry but then morphs on further pages into other dads, some of different colours, sits with his son on a bench. There is no dialogue apart from an inevitable ‘I love you’, with the rest of a sparse and vapid text given over to a couple of sentences on each page about the eternity of father-child relations. These sometimes rhyme, but ending the whole story with ‘Where you’ll never be ‘lone’ as a rhyme for ‘The place you’ll call home’ was never going to work. The strong internal rhythms running through all the best picture book texts ever since Beatrix Potter find no echo in lines like ‘He’ll learn to ride a bike as you watch on with pride.’
Beatrix Potter also relished simplicity of language along with the appearance of the occasional ‘fine word.’ Meghan’s use of vocabulary is both aimless and inconsistent. ‘This is your bench where you’ll witness great joy.’ Whoever talks to a small child like that? What elsewhere is meant by a ‘Giving tree’? And why is a book aimed at young children quite so big and clunky? Beatrix Potter, once again, knew better here, choosing a small format for her picture books just the right size and weight for small hands. The very opposite is true of The Bench.
Christian Robinson’s water colour illustrations are pretty enough, but sometimes over-smudgy where more explanatory detail is called for. Text and illustration also do not always complement each other. Dogs smile, fathers smile, yet even a small boy is shown beaming as his dad applies a sticking plaster to a cut knee following a bike tumble. Really? The front and end pages are given over to an attractive selection of differently shaped and coloured wooden benches with no father or son in sight. How ironic if these two spreads proved to be the most popular of all with young readers.