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Sendak's Night Kitchen Flies Over Controversy...Banned Books Week W/O
Written: Sep 26, 2006 (Updated Oct 6, 2009)
a Very Helpful Review
by the Epinions community
Pros:Facing childhood fears, simple story, fascinating illustrations, surreal dreamworld
Cons:Nudity might offend adult readers, not young children
The Bottom Line: This is a child's book with engaging illustrations that takes readers along on a child's dream adventure, appropriate for young readers.
If the bump, the clunk, or the thumps come from the closet, the best strategy might be to hide under the blankets (definitely not under the bed). If these sounds march up the stairs from the kitchen, they might have a different meaning.
The kitchen is a source of dreams to drool for, the one room in the house where tasty treats bake. Isn’t it natural to consider that the source of the thumps and clunks could be nighttime elves or bakers mixing up something yummy?
In 1970 Maurice Sendak wrote In The Night Kitchen. Mickey, a young boy, listens to clunking noises coming up from dark, night kitchen. Rather than ignoring them, he confronts them and shouts, “Quiet Down There!” What follows is a magical dream adventure.
Mickey fell into the dark, free of pajamas, floating through the dark eventually falling into a bowl of cake batter. Three very jolly, Oliver Hardy-type bakers were gleefully mixing ingredients into the batter that accidentally included a Mickey who fell plopped into the batter bowl. Mickey was not eager to become part of the cake.
”But right in the middle
of the steaming
and the making
and the smelling
and the baking
Mickey poked through and said:
I’m not the milk and the milk’s not me!
Wrapped in cake batter he continued his nighttime journey, bouncing through the night sky in his house, past a miniature city of baking ingredients, turning the cake batter into cake dough. He kneaded and punched and pounded the dough into the shape of an airplane for the next phase of his night journey. His flight carried him to the top of a milk bottle where he dove in singing, ”I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me.” Mickey continued helping the three bakers finish mixing the cake eventually floating back to his bed where he woke ”cakefree and dried.”
While I’ve read numerous books by Maurice Sendak, this is my first visit to In the Night Kitchen. There are elements that are perfectly delightful while some are incredibly surreal. The nighttime journey compares to those of Pasquale from the comic strip, Rose is Rose. The only real difference is that Pasquale wears pajamas and rides in a night ship, while Mickey fell out of his pajamas and bounced through the air. Pasquale is a very imaginative child who faces nighttime monsters with the help of a guardian. Mickey didn’t have a guardian and faced his demons on his own terms turning them into a “cakewalk” and nothing to worry about.
The clever illustrations (Sendak illustrated this book) created the fantasy and magic. He built a city with containers of baking ingredients and tools. Mickey drifted past the tall “Safe Yeast Up with the Moon” and “Ta-Ka-Kake” buildings as he looked down on a world of teapots, berry towers and a “Chase-O” high-rise building—it’s pure dream fantasy. After falling into a milk tower and having a sip, he drifted back to bed in time to wake up. The illustrations were as creative as the story. While cartoon-like they were surprisingly complex with multiple levels of information and provided a lot for curious children’s eyes. The artistic images were reminiscent of New York, complete with elevated trains (made from loaves of bread), antenna made from eggbeaters, and an ornate roof designed from a hand-held juicer. This symbolic art work, provided wonderful eye adventures.
Maurice Sendak's recognitions include numerous awards such as the Caldecott Award and the Hans Christian Andersen Award. His highly acclaimed writing has drawn criticism and praise. Personal favorites include for Where the Wild Things Are, Very Far Away, and Dear Mili. He routinely combines illustrations and delightful but often surreal stories with childhood concerns.
In the Night Kitchen has drawn a lot of controversy from the first, in part because Mickey’s a nude little boy. I have three boys and when they were young they loved nothing more than to run around naked. I remember a giggling, blond, curly headed, blue-eyed three-year old boy bolting through the neighborhood with his clothing a block behind him and me in pursuit. Whenever possible, those boys were always slipping off their clothes. It’s the nature of little boys (I’m not experienced with little girls, but I suspect they are no different.) Young readers will certainly relate to the naked Mickey with impish delight. The frontal nudity probably upset readers more than the behind vie, but, if it's a real problem get a black marker and artistically alter the small (very small) spot.
They will also empathize with the convoluted dream adventures. I’ve never met a dream that makes sense, and a Maurice Sendak dream world will not change that opinion. Children love this book; they want to read it repeatedly, and they want it read at bedtime.
A variety of interpretations can form from this delightful story once adults begin to apply their particular prejudices and neuroses. My interpretation felt that this little boy challenged potential nighttime fears. Subconsciously he realized that the kitchen was a fun and magical place full of good things and yummy stuff (like cakes). While cautious he was compelled to visit the night kitchen. The book gives children a helpful tool for a safe night’s sleep.
Is this realistic? Hardly, this is a child’s dream. It is a weird story, it’s surreal, but in the world of young children, most of their life is surreal. Ask three or four year olds to explain a dream? Then try to make sense out of their explanations. Good luck!
I applaud Maurice Sendak for his ability to write for children. I applaud his publishers who recognized that he was writing for children’s imaginations and not adults.
Books are challenged for a variety of reasons, but most often for good intentions. Generally challenges are designed to protect, and recently it seems to be to protect from different perspectives. These challenges tend to be value based and I feel it’s unfortunate that an opportunity to read about Mickey could be taken away because of someone else’s values. This book, as with many I’ve read, will be interpreted from cumulative life experiences. Will I recommend it, yes, although the surreal world can be difficult to follow for slightly older readers. Three and four year old readers won’t be interpreting the symbols; they will be sharing the brave night flight with Mickey.
According to a variety of sources, In the Night Kitchen was initially removed from a school library in 1977 (Norridge, Illinois) because of the nudity. This book was challenged for the gratuitous nudity by a number of schools through the 1980’s and 1990’s. There have been a few challenges for offensive language. I found nothing offensive about any language in this book, nor was the nudity a concern. Some people might have drawn diapers on young Mickey.
This child’s book celebrates creative dreams, facing fears, and enjoying the freedom of childhood. Sendak takes a potentially stressful experience (spooky sounds from downstairs) and turns it into an adventure with a delightfully entertaining approach. The book is simple, but not. The message is helpful and brave. The dreams provide a depth to the story that will appeal to slightly older readers.
Maurice Sendak's picturebook, In the Night Kitchen was written for all ages. Parents of young children can share this at bedtime; older children will appreciate the symbolism in the art and dreams. As for the naked little boy—he’s a little boy and they like being naked. What you find in this book is whatever you want. I recommend reading it for the pure joy that has delighted young readers for over 36 years.
This is a contribution into the Banned Books Week Write-Off.
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