Maurice Sendak’s most controversial book, if not quite his strangest, In the Night Kitchen is the middle book of a conceptual trilogy, the other two parts of which are Where the Wild Things Are and Outside Over There. All three of the books deal with children setting out on bizarre nocturnal journeys, entering dreamscapes that seem terribly threatening to adults but are really just business as usual for small children. They all depict situations of stress in very matter-of-fact fashions, turning real world anxieties into fantastic adventures that children can easily latch onto and understand.
All three of these books are wonderful works of art. Almost all of Maurice Sendak’s books and illustrations are good, but these three go way beyond good. They are some of the best children’s books ever written. Wild Things has become one of those perennial bestsellers that no child’s room would be complete without, and Outside Over There has earned its share of accolades from fantasy-loving adults – amongst other honours, it was one of the primary influences on the movie Labyrinth – but in my opinion, Night Kitchen is Sendak’s masterpiece, the pinnacle of his ability as a children’s writer and a graphic artist.
A number of elements come together to make Night Kitchen a fantastic experience for multiple audiences. Much like Alice in Wonderland (albeit far simpler), Night Kitchen offers something different for every group. For preschool-aged children, the most obvious attraction is the sing-songy dialogue, from Mickey shushing his parents to the bizarrely single-minded chants of the funny-looking bakers.
Milk in the batter!
Milk in the batter!
Stir it! Scrape it!
Make it! Bake it!
For most adults, the art is the key. I like the text well enough, but the art is what carries the book for me. I cannot praise the art highly enough. Night Kitchen is a comic book, featuring speech balloons, triptych panels and art that is both unobtrusive and surprisingly deep. The Night Kitchen that Mickey falls into is a nocturnal cityscape reminiscent of New York, back when it really was New York, and not the titanium and silicon Disneyworld Northeast. But at the same time, this city of brownstones and Art Deco towers is the Night Kitchen. Every building is a giant pickle jar or a box of wheat germ. The elevated trains are loaves of bread. The radio antennas sprouting from the tallest skyscrapers are the tines of eggbeaters.
This is the place where dreams are baked and sugared, where memories are blended. Every night the bakers who look like Oliver Hardy mix their ingredients to make Mickey’s life, or Sendak’s, or mine. In case you’re still wondering, this is the subconscious. We do more here after 2 a.m. than most people do all day.
Into the batter goes Mickey, naked and smiling, having lost his clothes as he fell out of his dayworld house. This is important, even if Sendak claims he only did it because he didn’t want to draw Mickey’s clothes all soggy and caked with batter. What Sendak may not even have realised as he drew the book is this: you can’t get into the Night Kitchen with your clothes on, any more than you can get into Heaven wearing your Rolex Perpetual. We are all naked in our night kitchens.
None of this is spelled out. There are no sermons here. The Night Kitchen has no smiling Jedi masters to explicate the symbology for Mickey. Only the bakers, who immediately assume that Mickey is milk (and if I wanted to, I could spend another four paragraphs interpreting that one, but I’ll try not to completely kill the book for you). They blend him into the batter and pop him in the oven, but immediately Mickey bursts out with a song of triumph:
I’m not the
milk and the
milk’s not me!
And up he goes, over the Milky Way, which is of course a gargantuan bottle of milk which he jumps into to fetch the bakers the milk they need for their cake. And that’s why, thanks to Mickey, we have cake every morning. Or so the book informs me, and I believe it.
FIVE REASONS IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN SHOULD BE ON YOUR BOOKSHELF:
1. CHILDREN - it’s a rare child who doesn’t love this book. Don't worry that the story doesn’t make any literal sense, or that it is confusing. That’s your adult mind telling you these things. To a preschool-aged child, the real world is far more confusing than any picture book, and most of the stories you adults enjoy make no sense whatsoever. Most kids will sit in hushed awe while you read this book, the same sort of amazement they display when watching My Neighbor Totoro or touching a horse for the first time. This is the kind of magic that most grownups don’t even understand, let alone feel. No child should be deprived of the experience.
2. DREAMS - for the older children amongst us, there is a whole new level to the story, a world of symbols and hidden meanings that children don’t (at least, consciously) understand. The art comes alive all over again when you look at it with a more experienced eye and start to look for deeper meaning. It’s still a simple story, of course. But then, the best ones always are.
3. PANELS - those of you who chortle with glee when you hear about a new Astro City collection, still have two hundred issues of Batman hidden in boxes in the attic and can spend hours leafing back and forth through the panels of Watchmen – this is your picture book. I don’t know if anybody really appreciated the fact when the book was released (1970), but Night Kitchen is a comic book through and through. Heavily influenced by Winsor McKay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, it is a classic in its own right and should be very comfortable sitting next to your Sandman collection. I’d bet dollars to doughnuts Grant Morrison has a copy that he reads every once in a while.
4. NEW YORK WITH KOSHER SALT - when you read something like, say, the Disney picture book of Tarzan to your child, you get as close to complete cultural neutrality as you can possibly get in America. Every indicator of a specific cultural viewpoint has been excised to make the experience as bland as possible. Not so in the Night Kitchen. As I mentioned, this city is a dreamy New York - but it’s a very specific dreamy New York. This is the dream of a Jewish boy growing up in Brooklyn, circa World War II. The salt is kosher. The customer service phone numbers on the boxes of baking soda have Jersey City area codes. The bakers are Oliver Hardy, but they are also immediately recognisable as Uncle Max, right before Germany invaded Poland and he shaved off that unfortunate moustache. When your kid is feeling like an alien because you packed him a matzoh sandwich for lunch and the other kids are all eating Wonder Bread, this kind of thing is going to help him. Trust me.
5. FREEDOM - this harmless little book has been banned from school libraries, defaced and hated in more ways than I can count because of one little detail, that being the fact that Mickey has a penis. Never mind that you and I and half the book’s audience also have penises. Never mind that most three year olds don’t even notice that he has one, and most five year olds love it. Busy little librarians and concerned teachers everywhere have drawn diapers on Mickey (who is quite obviously too old for diapers, and what kind of message is that?), scrawled big black censorship spots over his wee willy, glued the pages together or simply banned the book time after time. A great number of the book’s reviews on Amazon say roughly “I really don’t mind that we see Mickey’s penis, but this book makes no sense! I didn’t like it, and neither did my daughter, so we threw it away as quickly as we could.”
This is the kind of stupidity that begs to be fought, and you and I and Maurice Sendak are just the village idiots to fight it. There’s only one thing to do – buy this book, read it to your kids, lend it to your neighbors’ kids, have them bring it to Show and Tell, discuss it in your reading groups and Stitch and Bitch meetings and fight, fight, fight!
And when you're done, go read Outside Over There, because that's a great book too. And it has goblins in it, which is always nice.