Like we’ve seen in other Sendak books, the words are sparse and the pictures are big. But unlike some of Sendak’s other stories, In the Night Kitchen crows to a different tune. This dream-like story is sing-songy and non-sensical, elated and without shame. And, apparently, it’s also offensive. Just as parents initially reacted poorly to Sendak’s monsters, teachers and critics didn’t like Mickey’s nudity, and In the Night Kitchen was banned over and again. Even academicians (yes, this is the subject of academic essays too) point to possible references to Hitler in the bakers’ moustachios. Or the blatant assertion of sexuality when a naked Mickey yells Cock-a-Doodle-Doo (right, you get it). Or that he might be yelling “Quiet down there!” to his parents because they are having loud sex. Again, a whole lot of Freud… But the book was also given an honorary mention from the Caldecott Book Award in 1971. As you can see, it’s already enjoyed a lot of attention.
So, what’s great about Sendak’s next best known book? His second little dark-haired hero, Mickey, falls into a surreal bakers’ world and saves the day by flying a dough plane to a giant milk bottle and getting the bakers the milk they need for the morning cake. Again, as in Where the Wild Things Are, imagination takes a boy to a world outside of his own. But this one’s got a slightly different ending: “And that’s why, thanks to Mickey, we have cake every morning.”
People have been telling similar stories for centuries, and there’s plenty of names for them: fables, myths, origin stories, etc. I just learned this one: pourquoi– literally the French word “why”– stories. The Greeks told of how Helios drove the sun chariot every day across the sky, “and that why the sun rises everyday”. The Chinese told how the crow, once beautiful and rainbow colored, was punished for his pride by being singed in a fire, “and that’s why his feathers are black like ash and his singing voice became raspy with the smoke.” Kipling’s Just So Stories are perhaps the best known collection of “why” tales. And perhaps In the Night Kitchen should take its place in this genre.
Or perhaps not. Now that we’ve pointed out the obvious “that’s why” aspect,we can ask, is Sendak really trying to explain the origin of our morning cake? It’s a hard sell. From the moment Mickey falls from his window into a Mickey cake to his flying a hand-crafted dough airplane up to a giant bottle of milk, Sendak is not working hard for a credible story about the origin of cake. But does this mean the story doesn’t accomplish something bigger than itself?
Kids LOVE Mickey. But for us, how does such a mad-mix myth pan out in the adult world? What do we take away from a foray into nonsense such as “I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me. God bless milk and God bless me! (Really?)?” I’d say, honestly, not a whole lot. Sendak uses the form, but doesn’t necessarily follow through on it. We don’t learn anything. Though, might not that be a point? Kids get to revel in the fun. Adults… well we get to think about origin stories. Shouldn’t we always have to wonder why? Even if we think we know the answer, perhaps some sort of reconsideration is never out of line. Especially when it might lead us down a path of happy absurdity and wild rides on dough airplanes. The magical trip that reminds us what it means to imagine, just as perhaps many cultures did before there were “real” answers to all those questions.
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