Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin Random House 32 pp. $15.99
For parents, it’s the Holy Grail of bedtime stories: a book that will put your child to sleep.
Sound too good to be true? Not so, according to Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin, the author of the cult hit “The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep.” Ehrlin, a 37-year-old former life coach and a communications consultant in Sweden, says that his book, a 32-page illustrated story that he conceived while driving in a car with his dozing mother, offers a whole new way of getting even the most recalcitrant child to stop screaming and start snoozing.
“It will keep the child focused on relaxing and falling asleep instead of talking,” Ehrlin said in a phone interview. Thousands of parents have been drawn to its mesmerizing premise.
The self-published book topped the Amazon.com bestseller list in the United Kingdom in August, has been an underground hit in the United States and has been translated into multiple languages. It will be re-released Friday by Random House along with an audio version. Ehrlin, whose previous books are Swedish texts on leadership and personal development, signed a three-book deal with Random House U.S. and Penguin Random House U.K., including an updated edition of “Rabbit.” (Ehrlin and his publisher declined to comment on the amount of his advance, although Ehrlin says it was enough for his wife to quit her job as an Internet developer for a car manufacturer.)
The slightly updated version — with a revamped cover design and a few tweaks inside — comes with the promise of “a new way of getting children to sleep.”
How can this book succeed where warm milk, pacifiers, soft music and thousands of other books have failed?
“There’s no magic” to it, Ehrlin says. There is, however, something of a science to it. Although Ehrlin does not have an advanced degree in psychology, he consulted experts for suggestions on how to maximize the book’s tranquilizing effect. One adviser was Matt Hudson, a Britain-based hypnotist and co-author of the self-published book “Kids: Now They Come With a Manual.” He says Ehrlin’s book is “full of post-hypnotic suggestions” — language designed to induce a feeling or physical response — “and embedded commands to encourage and cajole the listener to sleep.”
Indeed, the language of “Rabbit” will feel familiar to anyone who has taken a meditation course: It encourages deep breathing, letting the body feel heavy, putting worries aside and listening to variations of the expression “you are getting sleepy.” Though Ehrlin says it’s not meant to be hypnotic, at times the book seems just a few steps from James Braid and his pocket watch.
The book opens with instructions for how and when to recite its contents: “The child should use up excess energy before listening to the story.” As for the reader, be prepared to perform. The directions suggest a melodic recitation: Bolded words are meant to be intoned with forcefulness; italicized words are to be whispered. Readers are directed to insert a child’s name and yawn at specific moments. They are also asked to use their best “fairy-tale voice.” Kids are discouraged from looking at the pictures, which Ehrlin suggests would keep them from lying down.
As for the story itself, it’s a simple tale about a tired-looking rabbit named Roger (no connection to the one in the movie), who really wants to fall asleep but can’t. The floppy-eared bunny is led on a journey, where he meets characters such as Uncle Yawn and Heavy-Eyed Owl, all in an effort to get him tired, so very tired.
Ehrlin, who has been reading the book to his 2-year-old son, Leon, since the boy was in the womb, says the story has a “trigger effect” to relax listeners. The book is aimed at preschoolers, but Ehrlin says it can work for anyone and has at times helped him. Though of late, Ehrlin has had little time for snoozing.
For the past few months, he and his wife have spent their evenings trying to keep up with e-mail and Facebook queries about the book. Until recently, Ehrlin was giving away e-copies on his Web site. “There are people who need help and can’t buy the book,” he says. Alas, those little insomniacs will now have to get their hands on an official hardcover ($15.99) or an audio edition ($9.99). Some copies of the original paperback have been selling for as much as $120 online; an e-book edition has been available since early September ($9.99).
The book’s popularity has surprised many. A recent article in Publisher’s Weekly wondered whether the numbers were manipulated. But Amazon denied that, pointing to discussions on social media. (Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.) An article in Britain’s Daily Mail also sparked interest.
Even Ehrlin is taken aback by his success. “I am pinching myself,” he says as he prepares to launch a public relations tour in New York. What began nine years ago as rumpled scribbles on a napkin became a draft that took more than three years to develop. Before releasing “Rabbit” in Sweden in 2011, he tested the book in preschools.
“We had some amazing results,” he says, noting one especially difficult kid who, after hearing the story, fell asleep quickly day after day. Emboldened, Ehrlin decided to test the waters by publishing the book himself. He found a distributor and got “Rabbit” into some bookstores in Sweden. The initial print run, he says, was about 5,000 copies — a far cry from the 300,000 U.S. editions Random House plans to roll out in its first run. “There was a lot of struggling at the beginning,” he says, but through word of mouth with parents and booksellers, he built interest. Finally, in August, he says, “it exploded.”
The response to the book has been divisive. Some parents on Amazon and on Ehrlin’s site have offered gushing praise, even photos of their children sleeping. “I just want to thank you for helping us make our 2.5 years old child go to sleep in less than 10 minutes instead of 2 hours that it used to take every evening!” reads one message.
Other parents have been frustrated. Reading the book, which can take about 20 minutes — assuming no interruptions from inquisitive, stubborn tots — is for some adults an experience more akin to a stage performance than a bedside lullaby.
One 3-year-old — a child of a Washington Post editor — listened to the book but didn’t like being encouraged to lie down. “She kept wanting to look at the pictures,” says her mother. “Is that the uncle?” the girl asked about the wizard-like character, Uncle Yawn. “He looks like Santa.” The child didn’t seem to understand — or want to comply with — the part of the book that asked her to “relax your feet . . . relax your legs.” When mother and daughter finally got to the end, after all the “so tired, so tired” and “very tired now,” the 3-year-old declared, “Mommy, I’m not tired.” Which put the mom in the position of having to say, “It’s bedtime, and whether or not you’re tired is irrelevant.”
Ehrlin acknowledges that the book doesn’t work for everyone. But, “you have to try it first.”
Or perhaps just go back to that old standby, “Goodnight Moon”?