How do you explain cancer to kids? This exquisite book tackles tough questions

This book took me to many important places. In some ways, it describes one of a parent’s worst nightmares. , the father of her two young sons, has an aggressive form of leukemia. Don’s future is anything but certain; he may die. Surely it is hard enough to explain this to oneself. But how do you explain it to a three-year-old and a seven-year-old?

Hooper is used to turning her gaze outwards. Her account of the death and subsequent quest for justice for Cameron Doomadgee on Palm Island is the subject of The Tall Man. Her portrayal of Brendan Sokaluk, the man convicted of setting the Churchill fires in 2009, is the subject of The Arsonist. Both books masterfully employ the kind of reportage that is prepared to treat every side of a story with a measure of compassion. They are also honest about the reporter’s place at the fringe of that story; they host a story rather than take proprietorship of it. Now Hooper faces the challenge of describing a crisis much closer to home.

Don Watson, Hooper’s partner, has spent much of his own writing career railing against cheap uses of language. In books such as Death Sentence and Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words, he has been a warrior against plastic language and the use of pretentious expressions to say nothing. I suspect he’d be pleased with this book. It is spare and honest and direct. It doesn’t shirk hard questions.

More than that, it celebrates the magic that an older father can bring to the lives of his kids. Don is a brilliant bedtime storyteller and this book includes a few examples of his impromptu craft. One is about a farmer who finds gold on his property and decides to use TNT to find more. But the gold was only a speck that an emu dropped and, meanwhile, the silly farmer has damaged his own land. It’s as good as Aesop.

There is a lot of waiting in this book. Waiting for an oncologist appointment, waiting for test results, waiting for the right time to speak to the boys, waiting for the death of the father of one of the boy’s friends who also has cancer, waiting for some kind of existential clarity.

Don, a child of the bush, appreciates signs of life in the garden. Hooper gains a deeper appreciation for the craft of storytelling for young people. In children’s literature, people just accept they’re living in a different dimension. They move straight from the mundane to the supernatural, she says. Hooper does not much like didacticism in children’s literature. Parents’ obsession with safety and routine euthanises any story. It’s every child’s fantasy to be set free from such constraint.

Hooper creates a list of characters who are missing at least one parent. They range from Cinderella to Oliver Twist to Harry Potter. She also describes writers for young readers who had severely disrupted childhoods: Eric Carle, the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Kenneth Grahame, Lucy Montgomery among them. A message seeps through about the importance of creativity in dealing with grief and loss. This book made me grateful to belong to the human family, a mob whose darkness can often be overpowering.

There is much to ponder in this loving and searching book. It is not just about dying but also about death, which makes the bystander gauche and where the ideal sentence flickers away and what’s left is just the weather of loss. Hooper tells her older son that Your soul is supposed to be the most you part of you. Even when your body dies the soul is separate. It’s said to keep living. This is a tentative moment, but no less beautiful for that. There are countless exquisite moments in this book about life stripped to its essentials.

Bedtime Story by Chloe Hooper is published by Simon and Schuster, $34. 99.

Michael McGirr is the author of Ideas to Save Your Life (Text).

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