Bookshelf

Putting the “F” in Family

Book cover
Can you name a number 1 New York Times bestseller that has the F-word in the title? Your ability to answer may depend on whether you have small children — we’re referring to 2011’s Go the F**k to Sleep by Adam Mansbach ’98, SOA’00. The real-talk bedtime book (expertly profane actor Samuel L. Jackson narrates the audio version) was a smash with parents worldwide, allowing them to acknowledge and laugh at the frustration of having youngsters who refuse to sail peacefully to dreamland.


After a sequel, 2014’s You Have to F**king Eat, Mansbach is back with another children’s book. F**k, Now There Are Two of You (Akashic Books, $15.95) reflects the author’s reality, and then some: Mansbach now has three daughters (“TWO OF THEM ARE UNDER TWO YEARS OLD,” his bio exclaims). “We had the first girl and from that point on I was like, ‘please let the rest be girls,’” he told CCT. “Girls have their shit together much more.”

Still, he says, “two is a million more kids than one.” In Two of You, Mansbach locates the humor in stressful group outings, loss of adult time, anxiety over future college tuition, and yes, bedtime. The audio book is narrated by famously acerbic comedian Larry David.

Though the F**k books are his most widely known (he also penned G-rated versions for parents to read aloud without changing the words), Mansbach’s bibliography is unusually multi-genre. In addition to writing for older kids (Benjamin Franklin: Huge Pain in My …), Mansbach writes poetry (Genius B-Boy Cynics Getting Weeded in the Garden of Delights), and his novels have ranged from satire (Angry Black White Boy), to saga (The End of the Jews), to supernatural (The Devil’s Bag Man).

His years at the College were similarly unorthodox: Mansbach, who grew up in Boston, was a rapper and a DJ from a young age, and “within 72 hours of arriving at Columbia I found everyone who rapped,” he says. “There weren’t that many of us.” As a sophomore he founded a hip-hop journal, Elementary, and straddled the experience of being a student while running a magazine full-time. “There were deep, vibrant conversations going on in and around the culture that weren’t being reflected in print, so I thought I could do something about that,” he says. “Elementary became a great community of writers and artists and rappers and DJs.”

A man with short dark hair

MATTHEW L. KAPLAN

He was also a fan of jazz, and in his junior year, Mansbach became a roadie for the drummer Elvin Jones. “He was John Coltrane’s drummer in the ’60s, pretty much the greatest drummer who ever lived,” he says. “I traveled the world with him.” Jones inspired Mansbach’s first novel, Shackling Water, published in 2002.


Mansbach says the leap from novels to Go the F**k to Sleep happened accidentally. “When your mind works in a satirical way and you think you’re funny, you just say stuff,” he says. “I was with friends and made a joke about writing a kids’ book called ‘Go the F**k to Sleep!’ and as soon as I said it, I sort of knew what that book would be, how it would play with the tropes of the bedtime book.”

He was surprised by the instant response (“I was mostly tickled that it was even going to be published!”). But at the same time he became a bestselling author, personal tragedy struck: Mansbach’s younger brother took his life. “It’s taken me a long time to talk about it,” he says. “I was publicly doing all of this shit, navigating the sudden fame of the book, and privately going through the worst experience I’ve ever had.” Mansbach’s next book, to be published in September 2020, is a poetic memoir called I Had a Brother Once.

Mansbach was thinking of the College when he wrote the screenplay for Barry, the 2016 film directed by Vikram Gandhi ’00 that imagines Barack Obama ’83 as a young man. “What drew me to focusing on that part of his life is that it’s so opaque, it lends itself to wholesale invention,” Mansbach says. “I had his memoir and a smattering of articles for sourcing, but it was mostly retrofitting who he was then based on who he is now. I was largely drawing on Vikram’s and my experiences at Columbia.” Mansbach’s screenplay was nominated for an NAACP Image Award and a Film Independent Spirit Award, both in 2017.

Today, reflecting on the latest in his cuss-filled collection, Mansbach says, “Go the F**k to Sleep became fodder for think pieces about the state of parenting, but these books are an affirmation that we’re not going through this alone — it’s an opportunity for a sort of shared catharsis. I’ll probably leave a few copies of Two of You at the doctor’s office when I go for my vasectomy.”