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Good night, sanity

For parents driven to distraction by children who simply won’t nod off at night, an author and an illustrator, both with local roots, offer a book distinctly not for little ones

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By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / June 11, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH — Four-year-old Jack Francomano was an hour and counting into his nightly bedtime shenanigans when his parents started to crack.

“Jack, you are done,’’ Stephen said as Jack darted from his room, yet again, and Sarah practiced deep-breathing exercises.

“My room is making me sweaty!’’ he wailed as his father scooped him up, a deceptively cute figure in Superman pajamas who had already rushed into his parents’ room and turned on the television, played games on his father’s phone while promising to go to sleep soon, tearfully refused to be read a book, disturbed his (easygoing) 8-month-old brother William in his crib, and, in a last-ditch effort that sparked a brief argument between his parents, claimed he was thirsty.

Then, finally, at 8:31 p.m., it was over. “The eagle has landed,’’ said Stephen, 44, a vice president of event technologies at Cramer, a company in Norwood, as Jack’s calls about needing to go “poopy’’ ceased. The grown-ups were off duty at last, but neither looked relaxed. The eagle would be up early, they knew, and then, tomorrow night, up to his tricks once again.

There are no statistics on the number of kids holding their parents hostage each night, but here’s one way to measure the extent of the situation: “Go the F**k to Sleep,’’ a sweet-looking book that gives frustrated and exhausted parents a voice, hit the top spot on Amazon’s bestseller list in May — five months before its original publication date.

With its idyllic illustrations of a peaceful twilight, a sleepy town, and cuddly animals, the $14.95 hardcover mimics the style and rhythm of a classic children’s story. But don’t let the children anywhere near it.

One section reads, “All the kids from day care are in dreamland. The froggie has made his last leap. Hell no, you can’t go to the bathroom. You know where you can go? The f**k to sleep.’’

The book pulled off the incredible feat of going viral before it even came out, after author Adam Mansbach gave a reading in Philadelphia in April at the Fourth Wall Arts Salon, and parents in the audience told their exhausted friends, who told their exhausted friends. A PDF of the book leaked online, and many parents reported having it forwarded to them by multiple friends. The intense interest prompted Akashic Books, a small publisher in Brooklyn, to move up the official release to June 14 — in time for Father’s Day. Akashic initially planned to print 10,000 copies but ended up printing 50,000 in the first run. By the publication date there will be 275,000 copies in circulation. Books are already available in some stores and online.

Mansbach, 34, an otherwise serious writer and poet and, of course, the father of a young child who wouldn’t go to sleep, said he thinks his latest work resonates because it lets parents know they’re not alone. Think of it as a profanity-laced self-help book.

“It’s a tremendous amount of time to spend failing at something,’’ said Mansbach, who grew up in Newton and is the son of a Globe editor. His latest novel, “The End of the Jews,’’ won the California Book Award. His previous novel, the best-selling “Angry Black White Boy,’’ was also well received in literary circles. But neither was as popular as his current work, he said. He has sold the movie rights to Fox 2000, and a G-rated version is planned. (Although it’s not clear who the intended audience for that is: children? prudish adults?)

“A lot of us don’t have a lot of free time, and every minute, every hour you are in that room is a huge chunk of your evening,’’ he said. “It’s the only time you might have to connect with your partner or have a glass of wine or read a book.’’

The book came into being after the fantastic response Mansbach got to a joking Facebook status update he posted about a year ago, inspired by a challenging night trying to put his daughter to sleep. It read, “Be on the lookout for my forthcoming children’s book, GO THE F**K TO SLEEP.’’

Ricardo Cortes, the book’s illustrator and also a Newton native, said he wanted the illustrations to play the straight man to the funny and profane text. “I wanted you to be lulled into the story as you might with a classic children’s book,’’ he said, “less jokey and more Caldecott Medal winner.’’

The book came with a ready-made audience. About 1 out of every 4 children age 10 and under have sleep issues, estimates Dr. Dennis Rosen, associate medical director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children’s Hospital Boston. These range from night terrors to sleepwalking to “behavioral insomnia’’ of the type described, albeit in decidedly nonclinical terms, in Mansbach’s book. (Rosen doesn’t have figures on the percentage of sleep issues that fall under the “stalling’’ category.)

Despite the prevalence of sleep problems, Rosen said, less than one-quarter of parents with affected children seek medical help. The rest, apparently, are just toughing it out — or are self-medicating now with the Mansbach PDF.

That includes Amanda Masselam Strachan, 37, a Winchester mother of three, and an attorney.

“Before I became a parent, I never thought I would deny my child a glass of water,’’ she said. But deny she does, because she recognizes the request as a ploy by her 4-year-old. “The killer is when he says, ‘Will you cuddle with me?’ ’’

“At the end of the day, you don’t want to feel like a bad parent,’’ she said, articulating the feelings of many parents. “You want it to end on a good note.’’

But sometimes it just takes so very, very long. Kathy Robinson of Woburn calculated that she and her husband have, at times, spent six hours in a 24-hour period putting their 14-month-old son to sleep.

“Not to minimize the real trauma that others have gone through in their lives,’’ she said, “but my husband and I feel that we have PTSD from the sleep situation throughout the first year of our son’s life. In order to get our cherub to sleep, we had to bounce, rock, swaddle, sing, rub his back, and have two noise machines, blackout curtains, and nerves of steel. The moment we’d try to sneak away, he’d pop up and cry.’’

That’s a situation Mansbach is all too familiar with.

“At some point,’’ he said, “you would do almost anything to get out of that room, including the classic mistake I always made, which is jumping the gun. The kid is almost asleep, and you think, ‘I’m going to make a run for it.’ Her head would pop up. ‘Papa, where are you going?’ I’m not going anywhere.’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com.

What causes it

Dr. Dennis Rosen, associate medical director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children’s Hospital Boston, said there are three main problems with getting children to sleep easily.

An inconsistent schedule. If you let your children stay up late because it’s convenient, or because they beg, it may come back to haunt you.

An association between falling asleep and a specific activity such as nursing or riding in a car. As tempting as it is in the short term to put your children to sleep using an aid, if they wake in the middle of the night, they might not be able to fall back asleep without it.

“Limit-setting disorder.’’ More of a parenting issue, this could also be known as the “just one more show’’ disorder, or the “five minutes and I promise I’ll go to sleep’’ disorder.

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