In the small white room there was a problem child and a red balloon (not actually) and some pictures of two parents who’d be losing it soon.
About two months ago we were at another very low point in Egg’s terribly inconsistent sleep development, when news about a new book started popping up in my news feed. The Rabbit who wants to fall asleep had become the first self-published book to reach the Amazon best-seller charts, promising to put any child to sleep over the course of its 13 pages. Swedish linguistic psychologist Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin wrote the book apparently using scientific methods to help “verbally rock the child to sleep.” The book begins with a page of instructions: certain words are to be read slowly, others to be emphasized. Forssen Ehrlin claimed that the book really could put anyone to sleep, and the news stories all contained quotes from parents who were elated with the book’s effectiveness.
Could a little paperback really bring sleep back to our house? By the second day the book was in the news, Natalie had ordered a copy from Amazon. Too anxious to even wait the three days for delivery, I tracked down and downloaded a free e-book version a few hours later.
That the first-page instructions begin with the bolded “Warning! Never read this book out loud close to someone driving any sort of vehicle” sort of tells you everything you need to know about what kind of children’s book this is. The story of how little Roger the rabbit (no not that Roger) goes on a little quest consulting a bunch of snoozy slumber experts like Sleepy Snail and Uncle Yawn is really just pretext for Forssen Ehrlin’s real content. The meat of the book is his apparently scientifically-planned cues to relax, settle down and “go to sleep now” (emphasis his). To be fair, the book clearly was never meant to be judged on it merits as a piece of children’s literature, but rather on its effectiveness in accomplishing its goal of putting the young listener to sleep.
On that first night, I was impressed. While on a typical night my little Egg would still be screaming like a banshee 15 minutes into bedtime, by the time I reached about page 8 of the 13-page tome he appeared to have taken Uncle Yawn’s advice and was dozing peacefully. It actually seemed too good to be true, which I suppose is what generated all the hype for the book in the first place. Interestingly, I was ready to close my eyes myself. Now I can’t speak for my baby but what I felt wasn’t a peaceful, meditative kind of sleepiness at all, but rather more of a double-whiskey, double-Nyquil kind of sleepiness. But hey the kid was sleeping, so I had no complaints.
The second night went ahead much like the first, with the kidlet snoozing before the last page and with me decidedly glad that I was not driving any sort of vehicle. I read the story again for bedtime on the third night after my download, and this time the results were so-so: Egg calmed down somewhat but didn’t fall asleep.
I haven’t gone back to the The Little Rabbit who wants to sleep again since that third night I had it.
My issue isn’t with the book’s effectiveness. Two times out of three is really good, particularly with my kid and sleep. Had I kept at it, who knows what sleep milestones we might have hit. And of course it’s a book for children, not necessarily babies, and of course any kid with any kind of grasp of language would get more out of this linguistics-based book than an infant. But again that’s not the point.
It’s not that I felt any health or ethical concerns after the wooziness I experienced from my reading. Pre-download, I had gone looking for more parental feedback in the comments sections of some of the news pieces I read. They were surprisingly full of people warning that Forssen-Ehrlin was a wicked manipulator of young ones. Little Roger, they worried, was hypnotizing or possessing kids and would surely lead them into a lifetime of sleep problems or other corruptions. The poor guy just wanted to go to sleep! No, I can only assume the people leveling those accusations are moralizing, childless assholes. There have been times I would have gladly handed Egg over to a cackling witch under a bridge if she could convince me she would get him to sleep for 6 hours straight. The feeling I got while reading about Roger’s descent into sleepytime was a bit creepy, but I still think the idea that a book could cause children any kind of harm is goofy.
The real reason I turned the page on Roger and his drowsy companions is that the book was no fun at all, and reading it made me feel like I was cheating at bedtime . It’s exactly the bedtime book a computer would write, and using it in our bedtime routine made me feel I was missing out on something preciously human.
Compare now with Margaret Wise Brown’s 1947 classic Goodnight Moon, which has become the most consistent anchor in our bedtime routine. The story is beautifully simple: the narrator lists off a bunch of stuff in the bedroom, then we say goodnight to all that stuff. It’s kind of the original manipulative bedtime book, in that the pace kind of slows towards the end and the repeated “goodnight”s seem like a proto version of Forssen-Ehrlin’s suggestive cues. But where I picture Forssen-Ehrlin writing his book while wearing a lab coat, bathed in white light and surrounded by multi-coloured bubbling beakers, I imagine Wise Brown writing at an oak desk by a cozy fire, maybe looking lovingly at a sleeping babe.
Warmth radiates through every page of Moon. Clement Hurd’s illustrations (sidenote: the little kid and old lady in Moon are rabbits simply because Hurd wasn’t good at drawing people, and how adorable is that?) have held Egg’s attention from five months or so onward. Even after having read the book now probably 150 times I still find them fun to look at. The objects we say goodnight to are both commonplace and fantastical…there’s something modestly magical about all the stuff in that great green room. After finally saying goodnight to the noises everywhere, I usually feel a sense of calm, and often Egg does as well.
No one would ever say Goodnight Moon is a cure-all for sleep problems, but really it’s naive to think that anything is. Our sleep problems have morphed but they persist and show no sign of letting up It comes down to this: if big chunks of the night are going to be miserable we’re going to damn well enjoy the minutes before bedtime as much as we can. When I read The Little Rabbit who wants to fall asleep I felt something like Uncle Yawn might feel when casting some slumber-spell…it felt like black magic and it felt powerful. But with the day almost done and my boy’s eyes on me, the white magic just feels so much better.