Books and Culture

Stefan Kanfer
The Nursery: No Longer Immune
Vulgarity finally reaches children’s books, but Maurice Sendak saves the day.
30 September 2011

Go the F**k to Sleep, by Adam Mansbach and Ricardo Cortes (Akashic Books, 32 pp., $14.95)

Bumble-Ardy, by Maurice Sendak (HarperCollins, 40 pp., $17.95)

The cheapeners of American culture have invaded Broadway and Hollywood, TV sitcoms, rap music, popular song, novels, magazines, and, of course, the Internet. But throughout all this degradation, one area was assumed to be off limits: the nursery.

Ah, but that was before the appearance of a children’s book entitled Go the F**k to Sleep. With the aid of Ricardo Cortés’s colorful illustrations, novelist Adam Mansbach has managed to vulgarize a universal experience—getting children to shut their eyes and go off to dreamland without asking for yet another glass of water, yet another trip to the bathroom, yet another bedtime story.

It’s no secret that mothers and fathers find this a difficult time in child development; not for nothing are those years called the Terrible Twos. But healthy parents handle it with patience and grit, whispering their grumbles to each other, and getting on with life. This slim volume, however, is not concerned with healthy responses. A typical rhyme reads:

The tiger reclines in the simmering jungle,
The sparrow has silenced her cheep.
F——your stuffed bear, I’m not getting you s——,
Close your eyes. Cut the crap. Sleep.

The back cover of Go the F**k to Sleep trails praise from National Public Radio (“Incredibly appealing”), Newsweek (“Delightfully obscene”), and the Washington Post (“May just redefine the modern ‘parenting’ market”). These are exactly the sort of institutions appalled by the sight of little girls wearing lipstick and eye shadow at beauty contests for eight-year-olds, or by the sounds of fathers and mothers screaming death threats at a Little League umpire. But it’s all of a piece: the stealing of childhood from children by pushing the tarted-up outfits, the cheesy bush-league behavior, the self-congratulatory cocky-doody language of adults with few standards and no taste.

It’s instructive to compare Go the F**k to Sleep with a new book by an old man. In Bumble-Ardy, Maurice Sendak, 83, the doyen of children’s books, tells the tale of a pig who never gets to celebrate his birthday. Sendak doesn’t shy away from unpleasant reality:

When Bumble was eight
(Oh, pig-knuckled fate!)
His immediate family gorged and gained weight
And got ate.

The difference is that Sendak’s book uses wit, along with a respect for language, for subject matter, and, most importantly, for children’s minds. Mansbach’s book is coarse in content, and awed only by praise and profits. In the present culture, it was bound to succeed, and, indeed, it became a #1 New York Times bestseller. From there, it could only go down, in every sense of the word.

Stefan Kanfer, a contributing editor of City Journal and a former editor of Time, is the author, most recently, of Tough Without a Gun, a biography of Humphrey Bogart.

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