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.
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