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Go the F--- to Sleep by Adam Mansbach review

Go the F--- to Sleep is just the latest manifestation of a “hostile lullaby” tradition that dates back centuries, writes mother and bedtime-story reader Jolisa Gracewood.

It’s tempting to read Facebook-joke-turned-picture-book Go the F--- to Sleep as the Howl of our age: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked …” But this dad-invented product – catchier than conjunctivitis and more viral than a daycare doorknob – is merely the newest version of a very old, very tired and darkly funny joke.

Years before I had children, a friend with a colicky baby told me about the “hostile lullaby”. Every culture had one, she said: a soothing song with a soporific tune and lyrics to curdle the blood. “Rock-a-bye baby, in the tree-top” … you know how it goes. The hostile lullaby always has a carefully jocular surface: it’s catharsis we’re after, not child cruelty.

Thus the old folksong with the chirpy chorus: “This is the day we give babies away/with a half a pound of tea./If you know any ladies who want any babies/just send them round to me.” Or comedian Tim Minchin’s modern lullaby, which follows “Papa’s gonna buy you a mockingbird” with “… in the hope that you get avian flu;/then the nice folk in A&E will take care of you”.

My theory was always that this pervasive bedtime fury is a product of the modern age. If it takes a village to raise a child, surely it takes a longhouse to send one off to sleep. Infants and the elderly favour broken nights and midnight chats; so, logically, for a full night’s sleep, you’d top the child off with milk and hand it over to the grannies to dandle while they spend the dark hours tending the fire and sifting the day’s gossip.

By contrast, in our atomised, nuclear cities (went my excellent theory), wakeful grandparents spend the night with Radio New Zealand National while, on the other side of town, we pull a midnight shift with the restless littlies. We anxiously consult bossy books about “sleep hygiene” and agonise over the ticking clock. And we blame our weak selves and our wilful children, instead of the Industrial Revolution that got us into this pickle in the first place.

Thus I was disappointed to discover that the hostile lullaby not only dates back centuries, but appears in many places. Like the traditional Blackfoot lyric: “Come wolf, bite this baby: He won’t sleep.” Turns out, there was no golden age of slumber. Children fall asleep anywhere, any time – except where and when you actually need them to. Even when they’re teenagers keeping vampire hours, and you need a block and tackle to shift them before noon.

Bedtime books are the modern equivalent of those ancient end-of-one’s-rope songs. They feature animals – hello, mockingbird; come, wolf! – and almost always end with the characters going successfully to sleep. Often, in a wink to the adult reader, the words say one thing, and the pictures another. The wordless Good Night, Gorilla, for example, in which a patient zookeeper returns the animals to their cages one by one, is the triumphant tale of an incorrigible recidivist bed-sharer. Don’t tell me you don’t have one, too.

Of course, from a child’s point of view, bedtime is the nicest time of the day: warm, snuggly, focused. No wonder they’re keen to prolong it, even if – or precisely because – they can tell we’ve got one eye on the door, eager to snatch a bit of adult time before we fall asleep over a book ourselves. And oh, can they prolong it. For a long while, a pertinent New Yorker cartoon graced our fridge: a weary father slumped over a pile of books, with his perky child saying, “It’s dawn, Dad. Want to knock off for breakfast?”

So we create rituals and set limits (in our house, the First Book, the Last Book and the One More Book). We entertain ourselves with ad-libbed in-jokes for the other parent hovering outside the bedroom door, and yes, the occasional strategic profanity. By all means, add an expurgated Go the Bleep to Sleep to your nightly routine, if you like. Better yet, compose your own “that’s it, kid” lyric. With luck, you won’t actually die of exhaustion, and will live long enough to see your children hum it, helplessly, to their own.

GO THE F--- TO SLEEP, by Adam Mansbach, illustrated by Ricardo Cortes (Text, $23), released July 11.

Jolisa Gracewood is a New Zealand reviewer and editor living in Connecticut.