Maurice Sendak died this May. Writers do die eventually, and he was eighty-three years old, but as one of the most beloved children’s authors of all time, he will be missed. Most of the memorial notices we encountered cited him as the author of Where the Wild Things Are, and we agree that is an excellent book, full of whimsy and at the same time not quite safe. Some of the best children’s books contain this element of danger or challenge, because they speak to the world of childhood in its wholeness, and childhood is not quite without fear. But we’d rather talk about another of Mr. Sendak’s books, the gently surreal In the Night Kitchen.
Briefly, In the Night Kitchen is an account of a small boy’s dream in which he floats out of his bed, out of his pajamas, and into the Night Kitchen, a world populated by a trio of jolly yet slightly sinister bakers who introduce themselves by chanting;
We are the bakers who bake till dawn/So we can have cake in the morn/crying milk, milk in the batter!
Somehow, the boy, Mickey, gets mistaken for the milk and very nearly baked. Huge vats of dough become clothing or airplanes, milk (and possibly other ingredients) takes its multistory place among the city’s other sky-scrapers, odd captions and notes peek out of the details of rich, playful illustrations, and a small boy goes on a hero’s journey to get milk for the mixed-up night bakers.
Mickey is never afraid, nor even really surprised by the Night Kitchen. His main objection to the bakers’ attempt to bake him seems to be just that they are being silly. As he asserts, “I’m not the milk and the milk’s not me; I’m Mickey!” The world isn’t safe, and indeed there are frightening allusions here–the men who are willing to put a child in an oven to get what they want all look disturbingly like clownish Hitlers. But Mickey is saved, not because anyone saves him, or even because he fights and wins a battle, but simply because in his child’s arrogance and delight in self he stands up and asserts that he isn’t what they think he is. And he is the one who solves their problem; he gets them milk. It is only an adult’s eyes who see the danger; Mickey, the dreamer, is in complete control.
And it is adults who continue to see danger in the book. In the Night Kitchen has been banned more than once on the grounds that there is something wrong with the illustrations of a naked child. Yes, Mickey is naked for part of the story, and in some pictures his genitals are visible. Some people read the plot and understand the illustrations as some sinister sexual allegory. Surely, they say, there must be something wrong with a book about a naked child?
We think not. This is a book about a child, for children, and nudity is no big deal for a child of Mickey’s apparent age; he looks to be maybe three years old. If he were a real little boy let loose to romp in a park between one diaper and the next, nobody would think twice. It is only adults who think nudity must mean something beyond simply being without clothes at the moment. It is true that Mickey falls out of his clothes for no apparent reason, but lots of things happen in the Night Kitchen for no apparent reason. It’s a dream.
We like this book. We like its whimsey and its richness. We like its danger and Mickey’s self-assured imperviousness to it. We like its chants and its rhymes and its gentle surreality. Most especially we like the premise of the Night Kitchen itself; we can imagine a small boy waking every morning to a breakfast of rolls and muffins and little cakes that were not in evidence the night before. Where did they come from? Knowing nothing of his mother baking, or his father picking up breakfast from the corner bakery on his way to buy a paper, the boy assumes they must have been made in the Night Kitchen, the dreamworld where adults do the mysterious things children never get to see.
This book’s a treat. Don’t limit yourself to just a single Maurice Sendak book, and don’t get all bent out of shape because a little boy is naked for no apparent reason. The nakedness just isn’t important. Other things are.
And yes, it’s available as an ebook, though you may have to hunt around for it, some. Not all online book sellers carry it in electronic form, yet.