Meet the Radically Honest Author Who Has to F***ing Write (Novels and Kids Books, Too)

Adam Mansbach, the author of 'Go the F**k to Sleep' and its potty-mouthed new sequel, is proud of his novels on race and identity, too.

Amy Klein
Amy Klein
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Cover of 'You Have to F***ing Eat'
Cover of 'You Have to F***ing Eat'Credit: Owen Brozman
Amy Klein
Amy Klein

Do not feel bad for Adam Mansbach.

No, the author of the wildly famous children’s book, “Go the F**k to Sleep,” who this week came out with an equally sardonic sequel, “You Have to F***ing Eat,” is hardly sorry that his humorous works – jotted down in a day – have overtaken in fame his more serious literary novels like “Angry Black White Boy” and “The End of the Jews.”

“I feel great about it,” said Mansbach, 38, with a laugh. “It’s unlikely that any literary novel by me – or anyone else – would have gotten the attention these have gotten, so I’m grateful for any kind of attention at all,” he said.

Before he became known as a pseudo-spokesman for a frustrated, overworked generation of parents, Mansbach was — and still is — a novelist exploring issues of race, identity and religion. His breakout book, 2007's “Angry White Boy” tells the story of an alienated, suburban white college kid possessed by black culture, who commits crimes against whites and sets off a dialogue about race in America. The following year, Mansbach came out with the provocatively titled “The End of the Jews,” which tells the story of a multi-generational New York Jewish family consumed by art.

The title was inspired by Mansbach’s grandfather, who turned to him and said, “This is the end of the Jews,” during a “garish” family bar mitzvah replete with awful ’80s music and kitschy dance-floor games.

Adam Mansbach

“It wasn’t a grand commentary on future of the Jewish people,” Mansbach said of the novel. He had just wanted to explore an ambitious artist family, but as he researched and wrote the book, the Jewish part became a significant factor. “Writing that book was my Jewish education. I didn’t have one to speak of, growing up," he said.”

Mansbach grew up in Newton, Mass., listening to hip-hop, and was more attracted to black culture than the Hebrew school he ultimately left. “What I found myself engaging with then and now is a very incisive dialogue and inquiry," he said, referring to the time he wrote the book and toured to promote it. “That’s the part of Jewish identity that I connect with, and that is what I find myself dismayed with, when people are not engaged with dialogue, nor is that the tenor of conversation.”

He was already exploring different literary genres – commercial fiction, screenplays, middle-grade fiction – when he came up with the idea of “Go the F**k to Sleep.” It was a joke, really, because his daughter Vivian, then two-and-a-half, simply would not go to sleep. He’d mentioned the idea to friends but soon realized, “I actually had a sense what the books would sound like and look like and how it would riff of the existing canon of children’s bedtime literature by incorporating an internal monologue of a parent putting a kid to bed.”

“The cat nestles close to their kittens now.

The lambs have laid down with the sheep.

You’re cozy and warm in your bed, my dear.

Please go the f**k to sleep.”

That internal monologue struck a chord with parents and, since its publication in June 2011, it stayed on the New York Times top 10 best-seller list for 40 weeks, its audio book version, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, went viral, and has been translated around the world.

Although he was flabbergasted by the book’s success, Mansbach said, “I was able to make the most of the opportunity.” Since then he’s published a novel, “Rage is Back” (2013), two thrillers, “The Dead Run” (2013) and “The Devil’s Run” (forthcoming), a two-book middle-grade series with comedy legend Alan Zweibel titled “Benjamin Franklin: Huge Pain in My Ass,” a three-book middle-grades series with the actor Craig Robinson called “Jake the Fake Keeps it Real," wrote a CBS sitcom (that didn’t get picked up), adapted his favorite children’s book, “The Pushcart War,” for the screen, andwell, you get the picture. The single dad who lives in Berkeley, Calif., with his now 6-year-old daughter, has been busy.

Not too busy to take another afternoon and come up with a worthy sequel to his golden goose: “You Have to F**ing Eat,” which opens:

“The sunrise is golden and lovely,

The birds chirp and twitter and tweet,

You woke me and asked for some breakfast,

So why the f**k won’t you eat?”

“Food seems to me the other great parental frustration besides sleep," he said. "It vexes parents in a particular way," he added, noting that it’s more aggravating than, say, putting on your shoes (one of the many ideas suggested as a follow-up). Mansbach said he’s experienced it with his daughter, and seen his friends struggle with it, as well as a lot of other parents and kids in public.

“Your cute little tummy is rumbling

And pancakes are your favorite treat.

I’m kind of surprised that you suddenly hate them.

That’s bulls**t. Stop lying and eat.”

The profanity, he says, is not the point of the books. “They’re honest: They tap into a set of frustrations that most parents are familiar with, but feel they have not been given permission to articulate. It’s very cathartic to know that other people feel the same way.”

Does he ever worry he’ll only be known for these books—like a band that has to play its most popular song over and over?

“I hope not,” he said, laughing again. He doesn’t worry much about his brand. “My approach is to not care. I want to be able to do whatever I feel like. I don’t think being versatile is a bad thing.”

Still, he likes to believe that there’s a common theme in all his work. “It’s an attempt to commit to a radical form of honesty and tell uncomfortable truths and examine complexity and paradox, and that may take the form of a novel on race, religion and identity or loving your kids to death and wanting to do anything to get them to eat a normal meal and go to sleep and feeling incredibly frustrated about it.”

The important part for him is to enjoy the ride. “My approach is to relish everything I do. Stand behind everything I do and see what happens.”

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