NEW YORK—You may have heard of Roger. He’s the little rabbit in a new bedtime book that can’t go to sleep, RIGHT NOW.
In a month’s time, which is lightning speed in publishing, Penguin Random House acquired and released new editions of “The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep,” an unusually paced and illustrated read-aloud that a Swedish life and management coach first self-published back home in 2011.
An English translation followed last year, but it wasn’t until August that the book climbed atop Amazon best-seller lists around the world—in seven languages in all—after being embraced by parents.
So what sets apart the creation of Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin from the shelves and shelves of books already out there as sleepy-time books?
“I have no idea,” the soft-spoken author smiled in a recent interview.
“One thing I noticed when I was comparing and researching my ideas, I saw there were bedtime stories that had more focus on playing and pillow fights and, ‘Oh, I don’t want to brush my teeth,’ and then on the last page it was, ‘Oh, now it’s time for you to fall asleep,'” he said. “So the change came so quickly. What I tried to do is from the first page guide the child to the goal, which is relaxation and falling asleep.”
Another thing in the book’s favor: thousands of parents and online commenters reported successes before Big Publishing ever came a knocking. A smaller number reported the book failed their kids and an even smaller number considered it a tad creepy, with its full page of instructions on how to emphasize certain phrases, inject yawns and insert the names of children into the story.
Critics aside, the techniques lovingly integrated and tested by Forssen Ehrlin on preschool groups over more than a decade of finishing the book and building his own buzz on Facebook and Twitter are on solid sleep-research ground, experts said.
“It’s a really, really sweet book. I liked it,” said Dr. Shalini Paruthi, director of the Pediatric Sleep and Research Center at St. Louis University.
At 20 to 30 minutes to read, she said, the book fosters a good wind-down span for kids and parents alike. The instructions to readers, she said, include the suggestion that children lie down while listening rather than look at the pictures. Bold text means a word or phrase should be emphasized, while italic text means a word or sentence should be read in a slow, calm voice.
The name of the star, Roger, can be read as “Raaah-gerr,” with two yawns, the author suggests.
All of that is “good sleep hygiene” for kids, Paruthi said.
Forssen Ehrlin, who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and is a guest speaker in communications at a Swedish university, said he consulted psychologists and therapists before he published the book. He wasn’t a father at the time but now has a 2-year-old son who has listened to the audio version since before his birth.
“I can really understand those parents who have struggled for many hours each night and not getting the child to fall asleep,” he said. “I have had those nights myself with my boy. I can understand why they appreciate the book.”
Paruthi does have some words of caution. No book is going to help your child overcome a medical cause for not being able to fall asleep. Up to 5 percent of children have obstructive sleep apnea, for instance, and about 2 percent present with classic symptoms of restless legs syndrome.
That’s in addition to the many, many transient periods of sleep disruption due to normal development, growing pains, teething, or illness.
Self-soothing is a valuable tool for a child, which runs counter to Forssen Ehrlin’s recommendation in his instructions that a reader continue the story to the end, even if a child falls asleep before that, Paruthi said.
Repetition is built into the book, along with evidence-based muscle relaxation techniques, such as instructing within the story for a child to “relax your feet,” ”relax your legs,” ”relax your entire upper body,” ”relax your arms” and finally:
“You are relaxing your head and allowing your eyelids to be heavier, (insert child’s name here).”
It’s precisely that language, part of what Forssen Ehrlin calls “powerful psychological techniques,” that sets the book apart.
Forssen Ehrlin is as surprised as anybody that the book snowballed so quickly soon after climbing the Amazon rankings in the UK in August, where the site made it one of its weekly deals and helped hook Ehrlin up with a publicist who helped him arrange interviews there.
He recruited Irina Maununen, the sister of a friend, to do the simple color drawings of Roger and his cast of characters, including Sleepy Snail, a wizard packing “powerful, magical and invisible sleeping powder” and Heavy-Eyed Owl, whom Roger consults for help on how to “sleep now” — now being one of those words repeated over and over again, lending the book a hypnotic tone.
Forssen Ehrlin insists there’s no right way to read the book. Some parents who have contacted him read a favored passage over and over.
“I always recommend observe what happens with your child,” he said. “If your child says he doesn’t like when you emphasize the words, that it feels strange, well then don’t do it. Read normally. If a child doesn’t want or wants his name in the story, it’s optional as well, of course. I want the parents to play with it, to have fun and see what happens.”