Adam Mansbach tapped into the frustrations of many parents with “Go the F**k to Sleep,” a children’s book parody that became an outright phenomenon. It topped The New York Times bestseller list and is now under development by Fox 2000 as a feature film.
Four years later, the author is releasing “You Have to F**king Eat,” which addresses another battleground for parents and children: the table. Although Mansbach and illustrator Owen Brozman use storybook illustrations of pandas pushing a shopping cart and skipping toddlers in the new book, the language used to tell the story of kids who refuse to eat is strictly adult-friendly. Parents can look forward to hearing actor Bryan Cranston read the audio version.
The author, who was raised in Newton and resides in Berkeley, Calif., drew on experiences raising his 6-year-old daughter for both books. When he is not spinning tales of dinner table struggles, Mansbach, 38, is a novelist, although he admits that other parents tend to know him best for the kids’ book parodies. “I kind of wait for people to approach me and tell me they like the book before I reveal myself as the dean of obscene fake children’s literature,” he says.
Q. Were you surprised by the success of “Go the F**k to Sleep”?
A. Incredibly surprised. It was a book that I wrote with no expectations whatsoever. It was kind of a lark. I sent it to my publisher and he thought it was really funny. But he said, no, he probably wasn’t going to publish it. It was a very gradual process.
Q. Did you have a plan for the follow-up?
A. I waited almost four years. I only wanted to do it if it felt legitimate and resonated in the same way the first book did. It took some time and my daughter getting older and me grasping that eating is such a universal frustration for parents.
Q. Which is the tougher battle, sleeping or eating?
A. Sleeping, for me. Every page of that book was intensely personal. My daughter is a very adventurous eater. I’m not the guy who sits around lamenting that all my kid will eat it is Tater Tots and chicken nuggets. With my kid it’s more a capricious and whimsical decision-making.
Q. Did you capture that in the book?
A. For me the most personal page is the one that says pancakes are your favorite treat. I’m kind of surprised that you suddenly hate them. Really? You asked me to make them 10 minutes ago. What butterfly flapped its wings in the forest and created a ripple that made you change your mind?
Q. Were you a picky eater as a kid?
A. If anything I was a prodigious eater of everything that was put in front of me. That was probably the only thing my parents wouldn’t complain about.
Q. Is your daughter the same?
A. She doesn’t have the best grasp on when she’s full. We were at a Salvadoran restaurant having pupusas and rice and she’s going to town, eating an adult-size portion. I’ve been trying to teach her to stop and assess. Her uncle Vinnie, who is a friend of ours, is a skinny guy who eats a lot. He’ll get up and walk around to see if he has more room. I’ve been trying to get her to think like Uncle Vinnie. So she’ll get up and do a couple speed walking paces around the restaurant and say, “Yeah Papa, I’m still hungry.” I’ll say, Homey you’re full. Trust me.
Q. Are all the struggles in the book from real life?
A. Everything in the book is autobiographical, but most of those frustrations are occasional as opposed to constant. My kid has probably done everything in the book, but not every day.
Q. Did she really eat a roll off a restaurant floor?
A. She did that. I made the mistake of teaching her the five-second rule at home. I’ve had to tell her, it doesn’t apply on the street. If you drop your slice of pizza or box of raspberries on the street, you’re not allowed to eat them.
Q. We’ve been talking about the low points. What’s your proudest food moment as a parent?
A. When she was about 2½ and we took her to see flamenco in Philadelphia, where we were living. They had an oyster happy hour special and she ate an oyster on the half shell. I was ecstatic. But I think there’s a fine line between being proud of your kid’s palate and being an insufferable jerk. I’m proud that she likes sushi. But you do become a jerk if you’re the guy in the restaurant loudly declaring, would you like the kale or Brussels sprouts?
Q. In the book you say your whole diet is the stuff your kid won’t eat. What’s the worst thing you’ve eaten off her plate?
A. I’ve definitely eaten food that my daughter has put in her mouth, chewed, then rejected. It’s kind of the opposite of what the mother bird does.
Interview was edited and condensed. Michael Floreak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.