Raising Children Is Heck
By PAMELA PAUL
OF the many moments during the day in which parents and children operate at cross purposes, none are so fraught as bedtime. After a certain amount of hair detangling, into-your-pajamas-now cajoling, recitations of “Goodnight Moon” and singing of shopworn lullabies, the parent is done. Done! And this moment is precisely when the child gets started: the repeat trip to the bathroom, the urgent request for water, the sudden fear of the radiator, the artfully misplaced lovey.
It is little surprise, then, that “Go the - - - - to Sleep,” a picture book written by Adam Mansbach and illustrated byRicardo Cortés, has become an overnight sensation with the P.T.A. set. The beauty of the book — which would be slapped with a parental warning for inappropriate language in title and text were it a movie — is that it looks like something to read to your toddler. In rhyming cadences reminiscent of Mem Fox’s “Time for Bed,” the text gently mimics a parent trying to lull a toddler to dreamland. “The windows are dark in the town, child/The whales huddle down in the deep/I’ll read you one very last book if you swear/You’ll go the ---- to sleep.”
Mr. Cortés’s soft illustrations depict the genre’s standard lineup: rounded toddlers, moonlit landscapes, slumbering animals.
Shortly after Mr. Mansbach gave a first reading in Philadelphia on April 23, the book’s pirated contents swept the Internet. Message boards and Facebook groups shot up like a spontaneous nationwide gathering of Parenthood Anonymous. (“You’re obviously not a parent!” was the most common retort pinged at anyone who dared object to the book’s message.)
The hardcover quickly shot to No. 1 on Amazon. Fox 2000 snapped up the film rights. And the book hasn’t even been released yet. (It will be published on June 14, ahead of its original October publishing date, in response to consumer demand.) The publishers say the authors have been pursued by “Today,” CNN, “CBS Evening News,” and Time and People magazines.
What could account for the fervent embrace? After all, swearing is hardly new — unprintable words now grace the titles of Broadway shows and hit songs. It is surprising that a swear word “can still have any kind of transgressive power at this point, but it does — in certain contexts,” said Ben Zimmer, a linguist. “Given our current middle class culture, with its emphasis on exposing your children to positive influences, the book feels subversive.”
Children’s books have often pushed boundaries. Material once deemed unsuitable for children — sloppy manners, untoward language, families that don’t match the “Leave It to Beaver” rubric, disobedience — is now considered by many to be acceptable fodder for children’s literature, even in books for toddlers who have not yet learned what they should be doing.
But books for parents do not get the same leeway. Today’s draconian child-rearing guides are still intent on what mothers and fathers really absolutely must do. What makes this latest book seductive is not so much its profanity as its articulation of verboten parental thoughts: We are not supposed to not want to be with our children. We are not supposed to not want to be a parent all the time.
Jesse Sheidlower, author of “The F-Word,” said the book states what everyone secretly thinks. “The shocking thing is that you want them to go to sleep so you can watch a movie with your wife,” said Mr. Sheidlower, who is also editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary. “That’s more of a taboo.”
Mr. Mansbach’s book isn’t the first to make this point, or the first to do so as a children’s book spoof. In 2005, Lisa Brown wrote “Baby Mix Me a Drink,” the first in a “Baby Be of Use” series of books designed more as a tongue-in-cheek shower gift than as a read-aloud. Not all parents got the joke. “I do not really recommend it only because there is not story (sic) to read to the little ones,” reads a two-star Amazon review.
But letting parents off the hook for their self-recrimination and guilt over bedtime seems the most cathartic tonic. According to Barbara Jones, director of the office of intellectual freedom at the American Library Association, parents have long appreciated that message, even in (somewhat) child-friendly formats. “Down will come cradle, baby and all?” Ms. Jones said pointedly. “That’s for parents. That’s about please — go to sleep already!”
Comic material has always stemmed from our darker nature, something children understand as well. When the book’s publisher gave a highly censored rendition to his 5-year-old son, the boy was delighted. “Children get the wackiness and mischief of putting a kid to bed from the parent’s perspective,” Mr. Mansbach said. He is now working on a G-rated version.