05.08.12

‘Go the F--k to Sleep’ Author Mansbach on Colbert's Children's Book

Bestselling ‘Go the F--k to Sleep’ author Adam Mansbach on the rise of fake children’s literature—and what his nephews thought of ‘late-night demagogue’ Stephen Colbert’s new book, ‘I Am a Pole (And So Can You!).’
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Peter Kramer, NBC NewsWire / Getty Images

As this nation's foremost expert on fake children's literature, it is incumbent upon me to provide some drunken historical context for hate-mongering right-wing extremist Stephen Colbert's charming new offering I Am a Pole (And So Can You!) before turning the proceedings over to my nephews.

As several less prominent scholars have noted, childhood is itself a social construction with no basis in biological fact. Before the Industrial Revolution (March 5-8, 1755) gave birth to the steam engine in a squalid London back alley, children were seen as picky, unreasonable adults, unfit for factory labor only because the modern factory did not yet exist. In many agrarian societies, children were routinely born at ages as advanced as 4 1/2, and put to work cutting hay on the family farm within hours.

But with the increased purchasing power accrued by children in this new era of gainful employment came a corresponding demand for literature that spoke directly to the concerns and experiences of the modern working toddler. Though literacy rates during this period hovered at a lamentable 14 percent, the invention of the printing press by actor Steve Guttenberg (Three Men and a Baby) made the dissemination of new texts easy, and many children learned to pool their resources and hire British character actors (most notably, a young Sir Ian McKellen) to read to them. And thus the venerable, millennia-old tradition of oral storytelling died, and the modern "audio book" rose from its ashes, though, of course, it would be decades before the discovery of the compact disc!

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Concurrent with the rise of children's literature came the cynical opportunism of established celebrities seeking to cash in on their fame by churning out quickie books intended to appeal to this desirable and constantly regenerating demographic. It is not widely remembered today how many prominent politicians, esteemed men of letters, and celebrity executioners of the 18th century capitalized on their notoriety by churning out mass-market swill. But look no further than the bestselling English-language book of the 1760s, The Founding Fathers' Diet. Written jointly by Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, it is seen today as a root cause of the American Revolution, a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy made manifest in mutton recipes.

From celebrity-driven children's literature followed fake children's literature. Originally intended for subliterate adults, such books proliferated in the 19th century, parodying the standard tropes with a knowing wink and a nod toward the crassest sensibilities of grown-ups. They appealed to no one, and the authors were frequently burned at the stake. This remained the case until 2011, when my book Go the F--k to Sleep became a beloved worldwide success, leading to the democratic uprising known as the Arab Spring and compelling every two-bit asshole who knows a bad word to try to copy me. Nice try, assholes. You're not rich now, are you? Assholes.

Me: Do you guys know who Stephen Colbert, the guy who wrote it, is? Victor: Vice president?

Late-night demagogue Stephen Colbert's highly anticipated effort for young readers is cowritten by Aaron Cohen, with contributions from Paul Dinello, Rob Dubbin, and Scott Sherman, for an estimated total of 62 words per author. The story follows a metal pole forced into existential crisis by the permissive liberal establishment; he meanders through seamy ponds and tawdry strip clubs before discovering the redemptive power of jingoistic nationalism. I recruited my nephews Victor and Henry, ages 8 and 10, to help me assess the merits of the volume.

Me: So what do you guys think, bearing in mind that if you insult the book, Uncle Adam will never get to go on Colbert's show?

Henry: I don't think little kids are gonna understand the words. And this is way too stupid for somebody my age. If they change the words, it could be good for, like, a 3-year-old.

Victor: Why is there a stripper? You don't usually see strippers in kids' books.

Me: That's an interesting point. Can you see this being taught at your obnoxious Brooklyn prep school? Maybe to teach you about patriotism?

Henry: What's patryism?

Me: Patriotism means, like, loving your country.

Victor: Maybe by some weird coincidence, they could use the book for a writing exercise, like to study how words are spelled. But I doubt it, because there's a million books in the world.

Me: But it's kind of funny, right? There's a bunch of puns about various types of poles. Is pole-related wordplay passé now?

Victor & Henry: (No response.)

Me: Do you guys know who Stephen Colbert, the guy who wrote it, is?

Victor: Vice president?

Me: Because of the suit he's wearing in the picture?

Victor: Yeah.

Me: What do they teach you at that school, anyway?

Victor: Stuff.

Henry: Yeah, stuff.

Me: Could this book secretly be for grown-ups?

Henry: No way. Definitely not. It's too stupid for us.

Victor: But you never know what some grown-ups are gonna like.