How to tell a child that their parent might die? Chloe Hooper still isn’t sure
So her quest broadened: she began to research children’s literature through the ages. It was a new twist on a subject that has always fascinated her: a character in her first novel, A Child’s Book of True Crime, is writing a children’s story about a real murder, and her second novel, The Engagement, has a bit of a Bluebeard theme. “Children’s books hold up a really interesting mirror to society.”
One discovery that astonished her is the long list of beloved children’s authors who had to deal with bereavement in childhood, often the death of parents: the brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, The Secret Garden author Frances Hodgson Burnett, Anne of Green Gables author Lucy Maud Montgomery, Roald Dahl, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Mary Poppins author P. L. Travers, Philip Pullman …
“You wonder whether that’s a condition of being alive before antibiotics were available,” she says. “But one of the lessons about children’s authors casting these tales of enchantment is that writing for them was a kind of panacea. It can help you understand the experience, or even have a sense of controlling it slightly.”
In her studies of myths and legends, and the work of contemporary writers such as Pullman and J. K. Rowling, she found many stories of heroes who go into the land of the dead and survive, bringing back some grain of knowledge that helps us in the land of the living. Another constant was battling monsters. Often the way to defeat a monster involved naming it accurately.
There wasn’t a particular moment when she realised she was writing another book. “It’s chicken and egg, I can’t remember which came first. In moments of extremis, writers reach for the notebook.”
Her writing began when she was finishing The Arsonist. Before this book was published, it was checked by the police; lawyers acting for the arsonist; for his family; and for a family who had lost children in the fire. Bedtime Story was small, domestic and lawyer-free: “There was a terrific relief in just shutting the door and not asking anyone for permission.”
I just hoped to craft a story that would see us through.
Did writing the book make her feel more hopeful? “I saw a way through the forest, to speak in children’s book metaphors. I’m not sure it was hope. I just hoped to craft a story that would see us through. But not all stories are to be believed.”
She knew Watson might want to write about his own experience of illness. “Probably Don and I eyed each other as to who was going to pick up the pen first. But he was at a disadvantage. And he’s admitted to being slightly relieved that I claimed the territory and he didn’t have to do it.” He read several drafts of her book: “There was nothing much that was off limits.”
In between her musings on children’s books and ancient legends, Hooper wove in the story of their everyday lives: her trips with Watson to specialists, tests, further not-so-good news, trying against the odds to maintain a happy home life. Watson the public man – historian, speechwriter and biographer to Paul Keating, author of many nonfiction books of opinion, perception and wit – is here revealed as Watson the private dad, storyteller to his boys: “all five feet nine inches of his stiff-necked, sun-reddened, impatient, funny, tender self”.
Armed with recommendations from the guidebooks, the parents finally decide to break the news five months after Watson’s first diagnosis, when his outlook is slightly improved, and before he begins what proves to be a gruelling experience with chemotherapy.
The parents do all the right guidebook things, but everything is unpredictable. Instead of sitting down for the serious talk, Tobias is playing with a balloon. For once, he doesn’t ask any questions. He nods briskly, treats them with polite caution. The parents run out of words. “We’re scared, and we’re right to be scared,” Hooper writes in her book.
They took too long, Hooper thinks now. “At first we had the feeling we didn’t want to upset him. Then there was the relief of actually being honest. And for the boys as well, knowing something was up but not being able to name the rogue element.”
The boys? Yes, it turns out that Gabriel also needs to have the serious talk. Again, it’s unpredictable. His response is to start a funny new game of falling down dead. “Children react so differently,” Hooper says. “When you drop in the philosophy, it’s hard sometimes to get the recipe right.”
She hopes her book will help not only families facing imminent bereavement but also those ambushed by the usual kids’ questions: Will I die? Will you die? Where do you go when you die? “It can enrich our lives if we deal with it in the right way.” But so often, we don’t. She remembers a mother whose three-year-old looked around and said “All these people are going to die”. The mother’s response? “That’s terrible, don’t say that.”
When Watson was young, children didn’t go to funerals. Illness and death were barely mentioned. Cancer was “a growth”. Hooper doesn’t think we have improved much. We’re not very good at thinking about the cycles of life, or the mortality of the planet, or anything else we find too challenging to address, she says. “We are denatured personally as well. We’re terribly shocked, even if someone lives to 85 and then dies. I read some study about how our minds switch off when we confront our own mortality.
“I don’t think we have rituals to deal with this in the way that traditionally was the case. And I don’t think we deal well with people who are grieving. Grief makes people uncomfortable.”
She shows me illustrations in children’s books she admires and describes their power: “When you see an illustration you haven’t seen for 40 years, the synapses light up, you feel an endorphin rush.” She was delighted to get The New York Times award-winning artist Anna Walker to illustrate Bedtime Story, and illustrator Allison Colpoys to design the book.
Walker’s pictures verge on abstract, hints of trees or clouds or stormy seas. “I wanted a change of tone, to feel you were dropping into the story. That was a real thrill. Then you start to think, What is a book? What can it do? How can we push and pull the various conventions?”
We survey the garden, a big player in the story, and Hooper points out the spindly maple tree in a pot where a pair of honeyeaters nested and reared their chicks, jealously guarded by Watson. Later they migrated to a strawberry tree and Hooper tells me such a tree turns up in Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights painting and is mentioned by Pliny the Elder. Only a writer would make these connections in a North Fitzroy backyard.
In the end, Hooper never found the magic elixir, the perfect formula of words for breaking bad news to children who scarcely have any concept of death. But she discovered so much more.
Bedtime Story is published by Scribner on May 4, $34.99. Chloe Hooper will deliver the closing address at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on May 22. Jane Sullivan is the author of Storytime: Growing Up with Books, Ventura Press, $26.99.