#18: In the Night Kitchen, Maurice Sendak (1970)
68 points (10 votes, #4, #2, #8, #7, #1, #8, #6, #1, #1, #4)
Brilliant illustrations and lyrical language. – tdjaimes
It probably says something about a person if they consider themselves a Night Kitchen person or a Wild Thing. And ironically, I’d say of the two that the Night Kitchen folks are perhaps a lot wilder than the Wild Thing peeps.
Sendak hasn’t reappeared on this list since he made his brief appearance with Chicken Soup With Rice way way back at #59. Now Night Kitchen is what a lot of people consider to be one of the big Sendak three. You’ve got your Wild Things. You’ve got your Night Kitchen. And then you have your Outside Under There, which has sort of fallen through the cracks with this poll. I am pleased to report that one person did nominate it though. As author Jim Averbeck said of it, "I love the lyric language and I am all for scaring the pants off children." Hear hear! Not that Night Kitchen doesn’t have its scary moments as well.
From my review, the synopsis basically boils down to: "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. "
I haven’t a good book on Sendak to refer to for this one, but in a lot of ways I have the next best thing. Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom as collected by Leonard Marcus is just chock full of interesting Night Kitchen info. For example, when complaining about one of my New York Public Library predecessors (Ursula spent a fair amount of time doing that) she says, "Wait until Mrs. Sayers sees Sendak’s new book. His young hero appears STAKE NARKID from the front. Like, wow!" Like, wow indeed. Go out and find me all the contemporary picture books that feature little boys naked from the front, why doncha. Not easy to do.
In fact, it’s the nakedness that drives people nuts with this book. Not the fact that three creepy chefs attempt to bake the boy up. Nope. It’s the nudity. As a result the book has been banned, people have painted little shorts on Mickey, and some have even gone so far as to cut out and paste in little pants on him. Librarians love that. Really. Makes our day (oog).
Nordstrom had to deal with that kind of stuff right from the start. Early on she received requests that future printings show Mickey clothed in some manner. In a letter to a woman who had written to say that she had burned her own copy of the book Nordstrom wrote, "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 was even less pleased when an item was published in School Library Journal citing a case where a woman had diapered Mickey with white tempura paint and said that "Other librarians might wish to do the same." Nordstrom was not amused. "The mutilation of Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen by certain librarians must not be allowed to have an intimidating effect on creators and publishers of books for children. We, as writers, illustrators, publishers, critics, and librarians, deeply concerned with preserving the First Amendment freedoms for everyone involved in the process of communicating ideas, vigorously protest this exercise of censorship."
In Minders of Make-Believe mention is made of the fact that the original Horn Book review of this book didn’t even bring the nudity up at all. "Paul Heins . . . had sheepishly avoided all mentions of Mickey’s nudity even as he hailed the book as a ‘work of art’ replete with ‘subconscious elements’ that complicated and deepened the ‘storytelling and pictorialization’."
For my own part, I wonder if any of the original reviews ever mentioned how this book was, in many ways, Sendak’s ode to Little Nemo. The classic comic strip penned by Winsor McCay was a huge influence not only on Sendak’s style, but on the very look of this piece. Nordstrom’s letters never mention this fact, and I wonder if even she would have recognized it. I’ve a couple books in my home that are either collections of Little Nemo strips or they discuss that era of newspaper comics, but none of them mention In the Night Kitchen, which is a shame since the book makes several direct references to McCay. One particular example 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. There are other examples, but this one is the most blatant.
There used to be an In the Night Kitchen restaurant in a building called the Metreon. I believe that it is now defunct, however. Having said this, Megan Lambert (Instructor of Children’s Literature Programs at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art) wrote me this interesting tidbit: "I read the entry for In the Night Kitchen and had to let you know that there is a Night Kitchen restaurant in Montague, MA a few towns over from Amherst, but for some reason I couldn’t post a comment. It’s housed in the same old mill building as a wonderful used bookstore, The Montague Book Mill, which has the wonderful slogan ‘Books You Don’t Need in a Place You Can’t Find.’ Check it out the next time you make your way to The Carle." Thanks for the information, Megan!
Not everyone loves it, but In the Night Kitchen is coming in at #18 on the list like it’s nobody’s business. A tip of the hat, then.
Read the whole book here if you like: