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Lit Crit: In the Night Kitchen

Lit Crit: In the Night Kitchen

Now, for another installment of Lit Crit. For frequent readers of this blog (and I know there are a slim few of you out there), you will be familiar with my practice of dusting off an old favorite of children’s literature and then giving it a few respectful nudges and pokes. This is not an attempt to malign or discredit universally adored classics (unless it is the Rainbow Fish), no, it is intended as more of a light deconstruction and examination of what the dominant and subtextual messages are contained in the book. Today’s book is actually one of my longstanding favorites, and selected more because of the enduring controversy surrounding it.

In the Night Kitchen was written by Maurice Sendak, whose previous book Where the Wild Things Are garnered a great deal of praise as it did scorn. Upon publication of Where the Wild Things Are in 1963, a few librarians issued stern warnings to parents pronouncing “It is not a book to be left where a sensitive child might come upon it at twilight.” If only those librarians knew what was coming.

In the Night Kitchen shared some of the same themes of Where the Wild Things Are with Sendak boldly sending his child protagonists on journeys into regions of the psyche that was hardly common in children’s literature at the time. For those of you that are unfamiliar with In the Night Kitchen, it involves a boy named Mickey and his dream-like adventures into an imagined “night kitchen” where things are mixed and baked in large proportions. Upon hearing a set of mysterious noises while in bed, Mickey yells a forceful “Quiet Down There!” He falls from the comfort of his bed, out of his pajamas, and into the surreal setting of the “night kitchen” populated by over-sized milk bottles and three identical bakers that look like Oliver Hardy. Mickey nearly gets baked into the cake batter, but makes a triumphant escape, to the surprise of the three bakers, fashions an airplane out of bread dough, and then (in a turn of events) he aids the bakers by flying up to the top of a sky scraper-sized milk bottle and pours cup by cup down to the waiting bakers below who anxiously chant “milk, milk, milk for the morning cake.” The resolve of the story is that Mickey returns to his bed (and pajamas) “all cake free and dried” and is bestowed with the esteemed credit of being the one that makes morning cake a reality for so many.

This surreal landscape of oversized pantry items that function as stand-ins for the urban landscape serves to make Mickey somewhat diminutive in his own fantasy world. Mickey cycles through phases of defiance, victimization, and ultimately triumph, as he succeeds in aiding the bakers and returning to the comforts of home. In the Night Kitchen combines the psychology of dreaming, and a child’s innate desire to greater understand the social and functional world around him/her into a fantastic and compelling tale.

So what is the controversy you ask? Well, besides the fact that many people saw this tale as too strange and somewhat frightening for young impressionable children, many people (librarians, parents, administrators, etc) objected to what they saw as gratuitous nudity. As I mentioned, Mickey falls out of his pajamas and spends a good half of the book completely naked with clearly visible genitals on a few pages (oh my!). As the enduring Puritanism still informs how and what we read, the idea of a naked child was hardly wholesome for many, and instead was seen as straight up indecent. Many libraries and schools banned the book soon after its publication in 1970, and a few people have said that there are still a few places in the United States where you would be hard pressed to find a copy of this fine example of children’s literature.

Now, I love this book for personal reasons heavily steeped in nostalgia, but I also love it because my toddler son loves it. When I read it to him, he almost always acknowledges Mickey’s lack of dress, but not in a way that is silly, condemning, or with the slightest bit of discomfort. I would like to think that he, along with countless other children, see Mickey’s nudity as a way to convey both vulnerability and freedom of the character.

I would love to hear what you think about In the Night Kitchen, and how it may have shaped your view of what children’s literature could be. Do you think nudity, no matter how innocent, has no place in children’s literature?

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

Parenting at the Crossroads

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

25 comments

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12:48AM PST on Dec 23, 2011

Thanks for the article.

2:09PM PDT on Jun 2, 2011

Maurice Sendak is a literary genius and really brings that extra special charm to the books he writes.

12:00PM PST on Mar 6, 2010

I love the book. Loved it as a young adult when it was published, doubly loved reading it to my own children 18 years later, and would go on reading it to any children who asked. I knew about those librarians. Put underwear on Venus de Milo, a leaf over Michelangelo's David, the fact remains that people do actually have bodies, and if I were trying to pull myself out of a vat of cake dough, I'd surely want NOT to be hampered by my pajamas.
Thanks!

8:00PM PDT on Apr 1, 2009

Maurice Sendak is a true artist and the dream-like worlds he creates in Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen are two examples of his brilliant vision. Oh and my kid loves it, almost as much as he loves running around the house naked!

6:02AM PDT on Apr 1, 2009

I AM a repeat reader of this column! Thank you for writing such a thoughtful commentary. I plan to share it with my Children's Literature class: ideally they would be able to analyze the messages children's books send when they begin to read to their children! We all agree that WTWTA is pure genius from a number of perspectives. I love Night Kitchen as well. The children's book that I find disturbing (and I know I'll get some bad feedback for this) is Love You Forever. But I'd fight to allow other people to choose it to read to their children if they like it!

8:22AM PDT on Mar 28, 2009

I just wrote a long detailed comment that then got erased when I had to sign in...! But I LOVE this book, came to it as an adult but found in it the same kind of fantasy we lived in as kids in our imaginations. I feel sorry for people who think there's something disturbing or threatening about it, who weren't lucky enough to have that imaginative freedom as kids.

As for the nudity, what kid does not love to take his or her clothes off at every opportunity - but do we see this as sexually troubling? I agree that the naked pictures are only weird for kids if they are taught to see them as weird. (Frankly, it would be gross and awkward to have your clothes on and get them all covered in cake batter and milk, eww.)

The idea of getting to play in a city where all the huge buildings are actually familiar household objects, fly a helicopter just your size, get mixed up in a giant cake batter and dunk in a huge milk-bottle swimming pool, then land back in a warm bed... it's the ultimate bedtime story.

8:14AM PDT on Mar 28, 2009

Nothing new to say, just thought I'd weigh in with my love for the book - I came to it as a grown up but was thrilled to find it portraying the kind of fantastic adventure my siblings and i would invent on our own, yet fleshed out with pictures and rhymes. It bothers me when people impose subtext on books that could well just be very imaginative - too imaginative perhaps for some who never had the same freedom as children.

I agree with others that the nudity is more a problem for adults than for children - anyone who's even babysat knows how much kids like to take their clothes off, but do we consider this sexually inappropriate? The images in the book are a reflection of what it's like to be a kid - except better! What kid wouldn't want to get mixed into a giant bowl of cake batter and jump into a milk bottle as big as a swimming pool? And then land safely back in a warm bed. It's the ultimate bedtime story.

9:36PM PDT on Mar 26, 2009

I love this book and all Sendak's others. My kids enjoy them too and they're quite blase about the nudity in ITNK probably cos we're all pretty laid back about nudity at home. It's normal. After all, it's not like we were born with clothes on. Imagine if babies emerged to the outraged cries of the midwife and doctors: "OMG! It's naked!!! Cover it up. NOW!!!" *eyeroll*

I love the rhythm of the text in ITNK "Milk in the batter, milk in the batter" :-)

Hope you'll pop along to my children's book blog: daphne.blogs.com/books

All the very best!

9:14PM PDT on Mar 26, 2009

I had never read this book as a child, but received it as a gift for my now 2 year old. She LOVES WTWTA and the Night Kitchen is a close second. I have to admit that naked Max surprised me, esp since he could have just as easily had his legs crossed to show just his bum and not his "bits and pieces" as Mike Myers says. But I found it refreshing. It's hard to grow up in this culture and NOT feel odd about nudity, even if ideally you feel neutral about it. The book has an odd narrative and quite frankly, I didn't really care for it, but my daughter adores it, so it's grown on me.

2:57PM PDT on Mar 26, 2009

This book is not that well known here in the UK, but I loved it as a child and repeatedly took it out of the library. I was thrilled to find a rather beaten up copy in a charity shop and have read it to my son and daughter since they were tiny. I used to love its dreamlike, intriguing quality, but I suspect this isn't such a big deal for them since they have been familiar with the book since they were so young they took its surrealism in their stride! My son, now 5, commented for the first time on Mickey's nudity last month, just as something 'funny' (body parts and functions are now pretty hilarious). It's really pretty strange to have a problem with nudity in a children's book, if you think about it. It's basically saying that we should be ashamed of our bodies - for bodies read sexuality and for some any notion of child sexuality is beyond the pale.

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