JODIE RAMODIEN | REPEAT OFFENDERS
The Bench is a lyrical picture book that celebrates the bond between fathers and sons. It contains short heartfelt vignettes on key moments in childhood and the fatherly guidance given in those moments. Its purpose is simple, to diversely depict the paternal love that resonates across all communities, as Meghan notes that “Growing up, I remember so much how it felt to not see yourself represented… Any child or any family hopefully can open this book and see themselves in it, whether that means glasses or freckled or a different body shape or a different ethnicity or religion.” Given the positive and altruistic conceptualisation of this children’s book, how was it received by the British public and the world? With either extreme negativity or extreme positivity.
Markle has been a polarising figure since her marriage to the former Prince Harry, exile/escape from the British monarchy and tabloids, and tell-all Oprah interview that dared to call-out the royals. The book has received an avalanche of criticism and barbs from the British press, a significantly smaller amount of hatred and even some love from the Australia media, and is officially a #1 New York Times bestseller. In the online reviewing sphere there has similarly been a sharp split in opinionated reviews with 52% of Google users having liked the book. Almost comically, the majority of Goodreads reviewers have either opted for a 1 star review or a 5 review, with Markle there is no moderation. Ultimately, with 18% of Goodreads reviewers giving the book 1 star and 40% of Goodreads reviewers giving the book 5 stars, Meghan Markle fans have won out.
Political drama aside, and judging this book on its own merit, I found it to be a sincere and tranquil reading experience. The splashes of watercolour soften the illustrations which portray flashes of childhood life through an inclusive lens. A baby is shown snoozing on his black father under a leafy tree, a white father bandages his son’s knee after a scrape, one father dances with his tutu-ed son wearing a matching tutu, a father in a wheelchair helps tie his son’s shoes, a Sikh father wearing a turban celebrates his son’s win and soccer trophy, a military father returns home, and so on. A familiar ginger-haired royal father also makes appearances throughout. Each father-son interaction occurs on, beside, or near a different bench. The obvious metaphor here being that the benches come in an eclectic range of colours, shapes, and sizes, and the fathers and sons are equally diverse. The Bench also highlights nature and the beauty of everyday experiences. One of my favourite scenes was of a father and son chatting while overlooking a stormy sea at the beach. The book exudes a sense of calmness, acceptance, and patience.
It’s impossible to read this book without feeling Meghan’s presence given that it is an ode by her, to Harry and Archie. The title refers to the bench that Meghan gave to Harry as a gift for his first Father’s Day, “I just wanted something sentimental and a place for him to have as a bit of a home base with our son,” Meghan says. Included on this bench was a plaque with a poem written by Meghan about the moments Harry and Archie would share on the bench. That poem later became this book. Pieces of Meghan’s personality and life are also infused into the narrative. Both Meghan’s favourite flower, Diana’s favourite flower, and Meghan’s rescue chickens appear in the book. The scene that shows a military father coming home to his family is inspired by a real sergeant from Texas she met while on a United Service Organisations (USO) tour. “He had told me the story about how he wasn't able to teach his son how to play catch because he was away… And so he and his son would mail this baseball back and forth to each other from Texas to Afghanistan and write the date on it… That page is true to form for him and his family.”
As a picture book, The Bench heavily relies on its illustrator, Christian Robinson, a Caldecott Honor recipient who does a phenomenal job of creating the mood and tone that Meghan envisioned for this book. Robinson’s illustrations are often inspired by “children’s book illustration and graphic art from the ‘50s and ‘60s,” as well as “nature, simplicity, cities, children’s art, animation, fine art,” and “music,” among other things. While he usually works in acrylic and with cut-out pieces of paper, for this book he worked in a different medium, watercolour. Although it was a creative challenge, Robinson found that “I really think it was just the right note” as “what makes creativity fun is when things are improvised… when you kind of have to explore and play and experiment.” The reasoning behind Meghan’s instruction to use watercolour “was specifically because I just felt that when you talk about masculinity and you talk about fatherhood, it can often not come across with the same softness that I was really after for this book. And I just wanted this to feel almost ethereal and light and Christian was able to use that medium and create the most beautiful images.”
The Bench has been called “so terrible it’s funny (The Australian),” and a “semi-literate vanity project (The Telegraph),” that will put “an entire generation off reading (The Telegraph again).” The level of vitriol The Bench has received feels both predictable and obscene. Meghan can’t even eat an avocado without it eliciting outrage and harassment. The Bench is a touching story of paternal love and inclusivity and is a great book for all parents to read to their children.