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Well, Mickey, this is another fine mess you've gotten yourself into.
on December 6, 2005
Sometimes my job as a children's librarian leads me to think one way or another about a book. For example, if I discover that a book has been banned by a school or public library somewhere, that same book acquires all sorts of interest that it might never have gotten before. "In the Night Kitchen" is one such book. Banned for the nudity of its main character this title has always been considered the second rung in Maurice Sendak's creative and artistic trio (the first being "Where the Wild Things Are" and the third "Outside Over There"). Fuddy-duddy adults everywhere are consistently and predictably shocked by Mickey, the young protagonist who prefers to experience his adventures au naturale. By all rights I should enjoy this book. It has everything going for it! It has been banned, it's by the greatest living children's author today, it is considered a classic, and some of the newest reissues of it are breathtakingly gorgeous. I mean, they just don't reprint books like this twenty-fifth anniversary edition no more. That said, it's probably my least favorite Sendak creation. Sad isn't it? Though I'll fight to the death to keep this book on library shelves everywhere, I must admit that I don't much like it myself. It all just comes down to individual taste.
One night, Mickey hears an awful racket and by a process of falling and clothing removal finds himself in cake batter. The cake batter is in a gigantic bowl tended by three cooks who each bear a striking resemblance to Oliver Hardy. Mistaking Mickey for milk (it could happen to anyone) they mix the batter up with him in it and pop it into the oven. The baking doesn't work though and Mickey, now clothed in a suit of cake batter, fashions a small bi-plane out of bread dough. With a jaunty measuring cup on his head, he flies up to the top of a gigantic bottle of milk into which he dives (thereby losing his clothes again). He then pours some milk down to the grateful chefs and a cake is baked. Then Mickey floats gently downward into his bed once more, "cakefree and dried". The moral of the story? "And that's why, thanks to Mickey we have cake every morning". The end.
So why don't I like it? I do in a way. This is Sendak at his detailed and wholly intricate best. The world of ingredients in which most of this story plays is almost as intriguing as the main story. I guess when you come right down to it, I've never much cared for this brand of surrealism. If something's surreal (like "The Red Book" by Barbara Lehman or "Who Needs Donuts?" by Mark Stamaty) then I need it to see it hold together in some way. "In the Night Kitchen" plays like an odd dream that a child might really have. A child that's watched too many Laurel and Hardy films, that is. I haven't a problem with the nudity. It's the whole baking into a cake aspect, I guess, that sets me off. That and the plot that isn't a plot. Though a tribute to Wildsor McKay's, "Little Nemo", I think I prefer the original itself. Actually, I did love how Sendak slips an oblique tip-of-the-hat to this master of the Sunday funny pages. It happens in a picture where Mickey glares from a bowl. He is being covered in ingredients and below him we see some sugar with tiny words on the label reading, "Chicken Little, Nemo". I'm no genius, but it doesn't take much to remove that comma and see the words, "Little Nemo" float before your eyes. Nicely done, Mr. S.
Of this book, its editor Ursula Nordstrom had this to say: "I think young children will always react with delight to such a book as 'In the Night Kitchen', and that they will react creatively and wholesomely. It is only adults who ever feel threatened by Sendak's work". She also says, "Should not those of us who stand between the creative artist and the child be very careful not to sift our reactions to such books through our own adult prejudices and neuroses?". We should indeed. A former college roommate once bemoaned to me the popularity of this book, citing her own childhood objections to its baking-kids ethic. It's hard to read a picture book and not find yourself weighed down by your own prejudices and hang-ups. Obviously, my friend objected to the book as a kid and that carried over into her adulthood whereas I met this book as an adult and was put off by it late in life. I would never prevent a child from reading it or hesitate to recommend it to someone who was already a fan of Sendak's work. I just don't care much for it personally, though I don't know how much weight that carries with you. This is a book that is going to get a different reaction out of every person who reads it. If you want a title that pleases everyone everywhere, look elsewhere. If, on the other hand, you want a highly original picture book for a creative kid who isn't squeamish in the least, "In the Night Kitchen" is the place to start. I didn't like it, but that isn't to say that someone else won't love it.