When an appalling catastrophe dominates the news—9/11, natural disasters, the school shooting of the week—articles about how to explain such tragedies to children pop up like mushrooms after a heavy rain. But here is a previously unaddressed question: How do we talk to kids about King Charles III? Why, young minds might inquire, is the adult world so obsessed with a man who has spent almost of all of his life waiting around for his mom to die?
In the run-up to Charles’ coronation on Saturday, Little Golden Books has prepared an answer. The picture book publisher best known for such titles as The Poky Little Puppy and Scuffy the Tugboat has a forthcoming biography of the new king. The result makes for a strange mocktail. Charles is 74, and an adult life of that length is seldom the stuff that pat morals like “Obey your mother when she says not to leave the backyard” or “Cabooses are important too” can be gleaned from. But maybe in this instance it is? Charles has, after all, been playing the caboose, just like another Little Golden Books character, for more than seven decades, and now he finally gets to be the steam engine! Follow your dreams, kids.
The problem faced by Jen Arena, author of King Charles III: A Little Golden Book Biography, is really the dilemma of all royal watchers at this moment: How to make a hero of a man who has had little choice but to squander decades twiddling his thumbs. People provide various justifications for disliking Charles: He married a woman he didn’t love and then cheated on her; he’s a fuddy-duddy who hates modern architecture; he’s a cold fish who alienated his youngest son. I suspect, however, that most of this contempt has a single source in Charles’ impotence. He was raised to do this one thing, and for ages and ages he just couldn’t do it. In Prince Harry’s memoir, Spare, the wayward duke refers to his father’s preoccupation with “work,” a trait Charles supposedly inherited from his own father. But the “work” of non-monarch royals mostly consists of ostentatiously helping out charities, the kind of work usually allotted to the otherwise idle wives of rich men. It’s a bit emasculating.
But now Charles is king, and if you are the unfathomable sort of person who’s invested in the royals, then you now must find a way to care about and be interested in him. If the king of England is an annoying, unremarkable grind, how can you possibly justify your continuing fascination with the pomp, the ritual, the behind-the-scenes soap opera, and that chicken salad? Books like King Charles III contribute to a mighty collective effort to turn this battleship, to transform the formerly rather pathetic Prince of Wales into a figure worth looking up to. In the book’s promo copy, Penguin Random House (of which Little Golden Books is an imprint) chooses to frame Charles’ story as an “inspiring read-aloud—and a royal lesson in patience—for young girls and boys.”
Nice try, but does anyone really want to instruct their kids in the merits of wasting their youth, their prime, and even their middle age in anticipating an unearned reward? “Not until your 70s” is an admonition unlikely to inspire kids who find it inconceivable to wait until they’re 17.
The rest of Charles’ life proves similarly difficult to transform into an uplifting narrative. King Charles III relates that its hero was bullied at a ghastly boarding school and overshadowed by his glamorous first wife, information accompanied by an illustration of Charles looking miffed as Diana charms the masses. There’s no avoiding the un-child-friendly fact that he divorced his sons’ mother, but Arena does gloss over another inglorious fact by describing Charles and Camilla as having been “friends for many years” before they married. One illustration depicts the whole Windsor clan, including both sons and their families, beaming in a garden as corgis frolic at their feet, with no mention of the rift with Harry and Meghan.
King Charles III is part of an extensive Little Golden Books series of biographies, a list including titles about figures ranging from Barack Obama to William Shatner. Publishing nonfiction for children seems admirable, but how to do justice to a life like Colin Powell’s (another Little Golden Book Biographies subject), which includes both a distinguished and groundbreaking career in public service and misrepresenting intelligence to prompt the nation into an unnecessary war? Such dilemmas make the predominance of fiction in children’s literature more understandable.
Charles does remind me of a particular fictional character from kidlit—or, more specifically a breed of character. I’m far from the only one. In a piece for the Atlantic last year, Tom McTague christened Charles “the Hobbit King,” for his implied desire to refocus British ambitions from the global stage to “localism,” just as Sam and Frodo, returning from their adventures abroad, realized the Shire meant more to them than any other place in the world. With his advocacy for rural folkways, sustainable living, traditional architecture, and organic farming, Charles is, in McTage’s words, “the inheritor of British Tolkienism.”
And perhaps not just the British kind. British intellectuals tend to view such interests as embarrassingly parochial and potentially racist. But Tolkien’s pastoral nostalgia is insanely popular outside of Britain as well as within, and people of all backgrounds have been drawn to his vision of the joys of a simple, modest, environmentally gentle life. If Little Golden Books really wants to salvage King Charles for younger readers, they might consider painting him sitting before a round wooden door, puffing on a clay pipe, and stretching out legs that end with a pair of oversized, hairy feet.