Why ‘Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site’ is a Scary Bedtime Book

Most bedtime books are nonsensical. "Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site" has a message: Work more.

Original Art by Tom Lichtenheld/Chronicle Books; Fatherly Illustration

Let’s get one thing straight: The popular bedtime book Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site is a good bedtime book. The repetition hypnotizes children, lulling them more effectively than anything you can get over the counter. But let’s also be honest about this story. It’s horrifying. The message of Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site is basically that there’s no difference between work and play that sleeping in a ditch is an acceptable way to live your life. It’s like a TED Talk delivered by an out-of-touch Silicon Valley hypercapitalist. It’s Goodnight Moon for the age of wage stagnation.

I should say at the outset that I’m pretty sure the people who created this book didn’t intend for it to read like your boss’s LinkedIn updates. Author Sherri Duskey Rinker and illustrator Tom Lichtenheld seem like nice people. And the illustration of the sleeping crane truck holding his little teddy bear is very cute. But, the cuteness of this book is what makes it so insidious. Let me explain.

Set at dusk at a construction site full of sleepy trucks, the book posits that construction trucks are sentient, emotional, and sleep-deprived. It’s a strange premise made considerably stranger by the fact that the trucks sleep at the construction site, which they never seem to leave or get paid. This is a somewhat concerning setup and doesn’t speak well of either their unseen bosses or their manufacturers, who seem to have imbued them with feelings to no particular end other than their suffering. (An aside: The only way for the sentient truck situation not to be concerning is if, in this world, sentient construction sites are a naturally occurring form of artificial intelligence that participates in ant-like hive behaviors. This possibility, paradoxically, keeps me awake at night.)

Weirdly, the forced labor of the construction trucks isn’t even the worst part of the book. Instead, it’s the idea that the trucks have clearly been conditioned through some kind of bizarre Stockholm Syndrome to believe that “work” and “play” are, in fact, the same thing. This is intensely worrisome.

The plight of the Cement Mixer gives us an idea of what’s so insane here. After talking about how much shit he’s done all day, the Cement Mixer calls this “the fun that keeps him busy.” Though the illustration suggests — for a moment — that he, the Cement Mixer, is actually kind of mad about all this work, he acts like everything is fine. He basically self-gaslights. This is not, at a time when the number of weekly work hours is climbing and corporate profits are uncoupled from individual salaries, a good lesson for kids. This truck needs to better advocate for himself.

And, also, there’s some hazard here in conflating work and fun. Hasn’t that squirrely idea done enough damage?

As we tuck in other trucks for bedtime, things get even worse. We’re told how hard each of the trucks works (“lifting heavy loads”). They apparently do this right up until the time they are going to fall asleep. If these were real construction workers, surely they’d have some kind of labor union regulating all of this. But they don’t. And the proof is that one of the trucks —the bulldozer — sleeps in a fucking ditch at the end of the story. The world Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site projects into the psyche of our kids is one in which you work all day (and work is called “fun”) and then because you’re so tired, you fall asleep in a ditch on the ground only to wake up and do it all over again.

This resonates, but seems less than fertile ground for a kids story.

Work-life balance is a real problem in real life. The world in which I live, I think, sometimes, isn’t that different from Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site. Many parents probably feel this way: You work all day to support your family, up until the moment you can no longer stand, and then fall asleep wherever is convenient. The difference between my wife and these trucks, I think is important though. My wife and I have the ability to have a glass of wine before bed. We have sheets. We don’t sleep at the place where we earn a living. We also have interests. Whereas the trucks conflate work with their identities, I do not. I mean, I used to. We’ve all been there. But that shit never works out.

Who is the Cement Mixer when he’s not mixing cement? I spent my twenties answering that question (and doing some other stuff).

Am I being a bit arch or over-woke? Sure, but only a little. Because when you consider how many times you read these kinds of books to your kids, over and over, you’ve got to question the messages within them, even if it wasn’t intended to be malicious. The idea of losing your time and your identity to a job is bad . The notion that the trucks aren’t allowed to see a difference between work and play is what is truly startling. No thanks. Kids should live off the clock while they can.