For Prince Harry's first Father's Day, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, got him a bench.
"As most of us do, you go, what am I going to get them as a gift? And I thought I just wanted something sentimental and a place for him to have as a bit of a home base with our son," Meghan says.
And on a little plaque on the back of the bench, she wrote a poem, about the moments she hoped they would share on that bench.
"This is your bench," the poem reads, "Where life will begin/For you and our son/Our baby, our kin."
Now, two years later, Meghan and Harry have added a second child to their family — daughter Lilibet Diana was born in early June — and that poem is a children's book. The Duchess of Sussex spoke to NPR about the book shortly before the birth of her daughter.
The Bench is a series of vignettes — fathers and their sons share a bench while they drink apple juice, wait for the bus, look at the stars and put on their shoes. The bench is where they cry, celebrate and mend their scraped knees and broken hearts.
Meghan says the poem was inspired by watching her husband and their son, Archie, together.
"I often find, and especially in this past year, I think so many of us realized how much happens in the quiet," she says. "It was definitely moments like that, watching them from out of the window and watching [my husband] just, you know, rock him to sleep or carry him or, you know ... those lived experiences, from my observation, are the things that I infused in this poem."
When it came time to turn the poem into a picture book, Meghan asked for Christian Robinson — the Caldecott Honor recipient and illustrator behind Milo Imagines The World and Last Stop on Market Street.
"This was just like, one day getting an email being like, 'Would you want to work with Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex?' And I'm like, in complete disbelief and excited," Robinson says. "For me, it was a no-brainer."
It was also a creative challenge — Robinson usually works in acrylic and cut-out pieces of paper. But for The Bench, he did the illustrations in a different medium.
"I wanted him to just try something a little bit new and work in watercolor," says Meghan. "And that 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."
Robinson says he was up for the challenge.
"What makes creativity fun is when things are improvised ... when you kind of have to explore and play and experiment," he says. "I really think it was just the right note."
The poem begins and ends with illustrations of the author's own family. A red-haired father and his toddler sit on a bench, surrounded by their dogs. But the rest of the book shows all kinds of families — something that was important to both the author and the illustrator.
"I think for me, inclusivity and representing as many different families as we could was at the heart of this book," says Robinson.
"Growing up, I remember so much how it felt to not see yourself represented," says Meghan. "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."
One representation Meghan says she particularly wanted to include in The Bench was that of a military family. Years ago, she was on a USO tour with a sergeant from Texas.
"He had told me the story about how he wasn't able to teach his son how to play catch because he was away," Meghan says. "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."
In The Bench, a mother standing at a window cries tears of joy, while a father in a military uniform greets his son outdoors. The father has thrown off his backpack in excitement, and the boy has discarded his ice pop to jump into his father's arms.
"That page is true to form for him and his family," Meghan says. "There are lots of little small moments like that that were personal memories or anecdotes that I wanted infused in there."
Like her favorite flower, her mother-in-law's favorite flower and, of course, the family's rescue chickens.
"I needed my girls in there," says Meghan.
But even though The Bench is a very personal, intimate poem that Meghan wrote for her husband, she says she hopes readers find its message universal.
"It's a love story," she says. "It's really just about growing with someone and having this deep connection and this trust so that, be it good times or bad, you know that you had this person," she says. "I really hope that people can see this as a love story that transcends the story of my family."
Samantha Balaban and Melissa Gray produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Petra Mayer adapted it for the web.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
And here is the exclusive interview we have all been waiting for. For Prince Harry's first Father's Day, Meghan, the duchess of Sussex, got him a bench.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MEGHAN MARKLE: As most of us do, you go, what am I going to get them as a gift (laughter)? And I thought I just wanted something sentimental and a place for him to have as - like a bit of a home base with our son.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And on a little plaque on the back of the bench, she wrote a poem. Two years later, Meghan and Harry have added a second child to their family. And her poem is now a children's book. Before the birth of her daughter, Meghan and illustrator Christian Robinson spoke with NPR's Samantha Balaban about the new book for our series Picture This.
SAMANTHA BALABAN, BYLINE: The book is simply titled "The Bench." It's a series of vignettes - fathers and sons sharing an apple juice, waiting for the bus, looking at the stars. The Duchess of Sussex says the story is as much about the larger theme of father-son relationships as it is about the small moments in life.
MARKLE: You know, I often find - and, especially, in this past year, I think so many of us realized how much happens in the quiet. In this story, I'm observing this love between my husband and our son and imagining what it will be as they have more shared moments as our son gets older, so from scraping a knee to having a heart broken, whatever it is that they always reset at this bench and have this moment to bond.
BALABAN: This is your bench where life will begin for you and our son, our baby, our kin, the poem begins. This is your bench where you'll witness great joy. From here you will rest, see the growth of our boy.
And when it came time for images to go with those words, Meghan asked for Caldecott Honor recipient Christian Robinson.
CHRISTIAN ROBINSON: This was just like - you know, one day getting an email being like, would you want to work with Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex (laughter)? And I'm, like, in complete disbelief and excited. And then I read the manuscript. And then I fall in love even more. And for me, it was, like, a no-brainer.
MARKLE: You guys can imagine when I had to decide who was going to illustrate this book - it's such a personal story. And I wanted someone who could bring this to life beautifully. And I had been a fan of Christian's work and just loved his illustrations. And (laughter) Christian, you can completely call me out on this one. I wanted him to just try something a little bit new and work in watercolor. And that 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.
ROBINSON: So, typically, I do work in, like, acrylic and cut-out pieces of paper. It's kind of become my comfort zone. What makes creativity fun is when things are improvised, when things - when you're kind of on your toes, when you kind of have to explore and play and experiment. So I was up for the challenge. And I really think it was just the right note.
And the story visually begins with a look at the author's actual family, depicting them in little moments. But then it goes on to share and show all kinds of different families. I think, for me, inclusivity and representing as many different families as we could was at the heart of this book.
MARKLE: We both started to explore even what diversity means when you look at it through illustration. And it's not just Black and white. You know, growing up, I remember so much how it felt to not see yourself represented. So 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. I mean, even the military family - Christian - we had talked about that because I had gone on a USO tour years ago. And Sgt. Strong from Texas was with us. He was deployed in Afghanistan. And 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. And that stuck with me.
ROBINSON: And if I can share one of my favorite moments in the book, it's where...
MARKLE: I don't think I know this. Which one is it?
ROBINSON: (Laughter). It's where you write, you'll love him. You'll listen. You'll be a supporter. And the illustration is a dad and a son on a bench stretching, doing, like, a ballet move. And they're both wearing tutus. And, immediately, when I thought of the word support, I just thought about - especially now, we're living in a time when people are feeling more open and able to express themselves and be them full selves and just have that support from your family, especially a father, is so important and powerful. So yeah. That really connected with me.
MARKLE: I love that. Thanks, Christian.
Kids, they just pick up on everything. And that was one of the pieces that I think was important for me, even on the homecoming scene with the military dad. It's like, OK, what is he doing? Maybe he's sitting on a bench. Maybe he's reading a book. Maybe he's dropped his popsicle because he's so excited. Because I knew Archie - I knew that our son would notice all of those elements. And he loves it. Christian, I haven't told you that. Archie loves the book.
MARKLE: Which is great because he has a voracious appetite for books. And, constantly, when we read him a book, he goes again, again, again. But now the fact that he loves "The Bench," and we can say, mommy wrote this for you feels amazing.
MARKLE: And it was such a great idea that Christian had, as well. Once we had decided on what the benches looked like for each specific vignette, to have them all at the beginning and the end of the book so that as a child you could go, let me find each bench and its own little project and game. Just all of those little Easter eggs or nuggets that are tucked within the book - I mean, there's a lot. If people start digging, I think you can find sweet little moments that we've tucked in there from my favorite flower even my husband's mom's favorite flower, forget-me-not's - we wanted to make sure those were included in there. There's a lot of special detail and love that went into this book.
ROBINSON: Just to add on that, you wrote something very personal, very specific. But in that specificity, it ends up being universal. Completely, honestly, I didn't grow up with a father figure. I myself am not yet a father. And so I might not have had these clear reference points. But, you know, I have an older brother who is an incredible father to my niece and nephew.
Also, I think when I'm creating, I'm also, like, putting out an intention in the world, you know? So I'm kind of - it was almost, like, I was visualizing the father that I wish I had - the father I hope to be one day. And I think because the author's words, Meghan's words, just felt so genuine and real, it was so easy to find those, like, connecting points and, like, make these moments feel real, you know, not just some, like - I don't want to put down a brand. Not a cheesy gift card, you know? Like this is...
ROBINSON: This is real stuff.
MARKLE: But really, you know, I think part of that, too, is it's a love story. While this was inspired by the love that I see between my husband and our son, this story and this connection, that bond that you're seeing play itself out - that could be with a mom. That could be with a caregiver. That could be with a sibling. It's really just about growing with someone and having this deep connection and this trust so that be it good times or bad, you know that you have this person, and you know you can always go back to this place that you share together. And I think that really is the larger message in it.
BALABAN: That was Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, and illustrator Christian Robinson talking about their new book, "The Bench." Samantha Balaban, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.