'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Wednesday 19 October 2022

Review: Bedtime Story

We need to talk about Bedtime Story. Like, we really need to talk about it: in small clusters around the water cooler, when we pick up the children from school, while we cycle down city streets and as we kayak raging rivers. Okay, maybe not that last one.

But still - we do need to talk about it.

Chloe Hooper’s husband has been diagnosed with an aggressive, life-threatening illness and her children are quite small, just 3 and 6. So, she asks an important and timeless question – How do we talk to children about death in a way that leaves them loving life?

It’s probably important to say that while this is not a book for children, Hooper’s personal voyage of discovery leans into the above question at every turn, exploring writing and writers for children in all the ways you can imagine and some that you cannot. The writing is stunning. The pacing just right.

Once upon a time

Your father found himself

Lost in the woods.

This non-fiction narrative contains moments of delicate, tender and exquisitely crafted poetry which is superbly supported by illustrator Anna Walker’s smudgy, abstract and very affecting wet-in-wet watercolour paintings. These are rendered in simple shades of grey and black.

Then, from out of nowhere,

A narrow track emerged.

He began following it.

He’s following it.

We’re following it.

Where it will lead we do not know…

Hooper takes us on a ride that is farther away even, than the clouds or the magical lands of Once Upon A Time. She has us visit with mythical creatures and fractured tales that belong in other times and places, all the while guiding us through her husband’s very real and traumatic diagnosis of a rare, probably incurable, cancer.

The book is written to her oldest child who is 6 and then 7 at the time of writing. This alone is enough to undo me in the first paragraphs, but I bravely keep reading. If she can write it, I can read it. And the thing is, that I can. I can read it because it’s so real and raw and heartfelt and curious and probing and flawed and delightful and charming and messy and bold and ordered and chaotic, that it holds me in not just one but in many places all at once.

I’m not ashamed to say that there are moments I weep. For the children. For the adults. For humanity.

And there are times I laugh. Because the beauty and joy is palpable.

I gasp and catch my breath in places, at the sheer magic and impossibility of what is on the page; the language and the imagery. Walker’s sporadically placed watercolour illustrations are a quiet, intense character of tremendous import. Like the deliberate placement of poetry, these images create moments of exquisite profundity and beauty as they arrive on the page and then disappear.

At times there will be a little curl of black, just on the bottom corner or wrapping around the last word or two in a sentence,

like an ocean wave

in a swelling sea.

At others, the incessant driving rain

and bleak outlook

are a murky and relentless visual force on the page,

chopping and blocking at those words that we want so desperately

to stop.

Or to change track.

Or to be differently shaped.

We need to talk about this book.

We need to talk about the searing honesty and courage of a mother who articulates her mistaken belief that a 3-year old is too young to be affected by his father’s illness.

To talk about humans whose fierce and consuming love for their family is palpably, demonstrably represented over and over again.

About small nesting birds.

We need to talk about children who are impacted by death, and who need the space and the words and the permission to feel their feelings and be safe and held and alive and angry and happy while they walk this disorienting path.

We need to talk about happy childhoods. And the gentle, but very definite, guidance that this work of art offers to us.

Tune back in this afternoon to watch the stirring Book Trailer for Bedtime Stories and keep an eye out for more features from Chloe Hooper. 

Title: Bedtime Story
Author: Chloe Hooper
Illustrator: Anna Walker
Publisher: Simon and Schuster, $34.99
Publication Date: May 2022
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9781761103513
For ages: 16+
Type: Book for Adults