In the Night Kitchen: Part 4: Also known as the last part

We’re almost done, folks. If you’re just tuning in now, Parts 1, 2 and 3 are here, here and here. Trying out larger pictures, too, so let’s see how that works.

Page 14
Source: Maurice Sendak

What could this page mean?

In the Night Kitchen: Part 3

Welcome to installment three of the Absurdly In-Depth Analysis of In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak. See parts 1 (here) and 2(here) to catch up.

Up until this point, there has already been a complete, if unsubstantive, plot arc. We have seen Mickey fall away from home, be baked in a cake, and achieve ultimate redemption by using dough, that sticky morass of potential danger, to escape dough. Fine, book’s over. Time to sleep.

Not so fast!

Page 9
Source: Maurice Sendak

Meaningfulness Ahead!

In the Night Kitchen: Part 1

Though psychology has unequivocally swept away Locke’s theory of the tabula rasa, the blank slate with which we are born, in the imagination of children’s book authors, the minds of children are still sunny, white-washed and tranquil, disturbed only by the absence of food or a blanket, or the transient difficulties faced by a beloved character. But this is nothing more than an obsession with purity worming its way into our socializing processes. No adult knew better than Maurice Sendak that to be a child is to be constantly disturbed, bewildered and terrifying by an ever-changing landscape over which one has no control. Do other people have minds and thoughts? Where do my parents go when I don’t see them? What if the monsters are real? How much can I imagine? To be a children’s author is to work at remembering what it was like to be a child; an incredibly difficult procedure. It requires truly the best of minds to speak to the mad and wild complexities of internal life in language suitable for young ones. 

My copy of In the Night Kitchen is sitting in my home in Miami, Florida, currently thoroughly unloved, though still showing signs of the tens of times I eagerly tore through it (not always figuratively) or asked that my parents do so aloud. In honor of Maurice Sendak, that brilliant, unconventional, controversial children’s writer, I am going to blog through a rereading of the book. The pdf is available online here, though the effect is far diminished when the pages are not in front of you, adamantly demanding attention with their glossy shine, intense colors and larger-than-your-head size. Follow along, and add your own recollections or thoughts in comments!
Cover Page.
Source: Maurice Sendak
There are no bright colors. None. This is unheard of for a children’s book. There are greys, muted reds and greens, and a great deal of brown. The effect, frankly, is one of uneasiness, perhaps fear. The image of of our hero, flying in a clearly not airworthy vessel, with a facial expression of sheer contentment gives a sense of delicious fun (he’s wearing something on his head!) and delightfully contrasts with the dirty, grimy city below. And yet! What is this city but all the things one might find in a kitchen, alluding to all of the playful childhood imaginations of anthropomorphic household items. I certainly remember wishing I were small enough to see my house as a whole world, being absolutely certain that the vantage point of an ant or toy soldier would be infinitely more interesting.
Page 1
Source: Maurice Sendak

As a child, I never noticed the mobile above his head, which foreshadows the plane he flies in later, but I absolutely loved this font, as well as the rhythm, begging to be read aloud by the very spacing of the words.

Page 2
Source: Maurice Sendak

Definitely one of my favorite pages. I think it’s the suddenness with which reality changes to something more fantastic, and the total nonchalance of Mickey, who’s just enjoying the ride. And being awesomely buck naked.

Page 3
Source: Maurice Sendak

I mean, just look at that face. He is so comfortable, so content. It’s like he always knew where he was going. And that batter always looked so soft and inviting. I notice now, as I didn’t then, that in addition to common ingredients, the structural architecture in the background is tools, peelers and mixer paddles and the like. And always that moon, illuminating and watching, promising the reader that the connection to the real world remains intact, since it is the same moon we saw earlier, but simultaneously introducing a whole new world, the world of the Night Kitchen. Mickey’s ease of entry combined with the construction “did you hear” at the beginning suggests the tantalizing notion that the Night Kitchen has always existed, it’s just that most of us haven’t found it yet.

Page 4
Source: Maurice Sendak

And here comes the chefs. They always looked so cheerful and friendly to me, although Maurice Sendak has claimed that they and their moustaches were intended to represent Hitler. I’ll go into that later. I realize now that the image of being baked into a cake by chefs so oblivious or uncaring as to not notice your presence could be the stuff of nightmares. To me as a child, though, there was nothing frightening at all. Instead, there a sense in which these were simply the chefs going about their nightly work. There was something delightful about a parallel universe which was completely devoid of conflict and hubbub, which ran completely smoothly, without a hitch, and without our knowledge, to deliver cake in the morning. Worlds of our imagination do not need drama to enthrall. The fireworks of fantasy are replaced by the endlessly exciting idea of normalcy, of a consistent and unremarkable pattern, thoroughly different from our own, simply existing.

This, I think, is true genius. To understand that a world of strange creatures doing unbelievable things and having gripping adventures all the while comes second only to a world populated with people more or less like us, doing things more or less like us, just different enough to bewilder, who care not a whit for our existence.

There is also brilliance in the tension of the possibility of abject terror from being buried alive in hot batter existing side-by-side with the nonchalance of the everyday workings of a different world. Of course, this neatly fits into the extended Holocaust reference, which adds another layer of meaning. For those, including myself, who wonder whether children were expected to understand such allegory, remember that once said“I don’t write books for children. I write them for myself. Children happen to like them.”

We do indeed, Maurice. RIP.

Maurice Sendak

Parts 2 through however many to come. UPDATE: Part 2 here!

Atheism is fun, but that’s not why we do it

One of the problems with being an atheist is that your very existence is offensive.
One of the other problems with being an atheist is that everyone knows that your very existence is offensive, so they expect you to be exciting and radical, even when you’re not.
Catch-22, anyone?
Greta Christina’s been talking about Catch-22’s lately (catches-22?), and I wanted to add one to the mix. Being an atheist is a statement that you believe a claim about the world that is relatively uncommon, and so that identity is a message to most of the people around you that they are wrong. That’s a difficult barrier to overcome. There’s something about believing “there is no god” that is more combative to theists than “I believe in a different god” is to a fellow theist of a different religion. Given that, many atheists refrain from making their atheism known when it’s not absolutely necessary. Or, when the context is one of tolerance and diversity, we might tone down our rhetoric.

On the other hand, atheism is becoming better known. Atheist books are bestsellers, atheist blogs get thousands and millions of hits, secular groups are growing and increasing in number. Unsurprisingly, this has led to more and more awareness, and thus more and more intellectual and political conflict. Articles in newspapers, debates, scandals all point to a massively exciting culture war, which can completely erase the fact that day-to-day lives of atheists are generally calm and normal. As Greta Christina says, “it’s not like we walk around angry all the time.” But sometimes, people are itching for a fight, and we’re supposed to provide one, because as is well known, when an atheist and a theist walk into the same room, hijinks always ensue. And that can really detract from one of the main thrusts of our cause, which is that atheists are normal people. Some of us are activists, of course. Many more of us are very angry. But that doesn’t erase the fact that what we’re asking for is simply common sense: separation of church and state, no discrimination against atheists, and evidence based politics.

This all came to mind during the University of Chicago’s Multifaith Celebration, which was intended to showcase the diversity of practices and beliefs on this campus. Various religious groups said invocations and sang songs, while the Secular Alliance read from Carl Sagan’s brilliant essay, the Pale Blue Dot. Before we were set to present, someone came over and asked what we were going to present. Upon reading our print-out, he complained that it wasn’t particularly atheistic, nor was it very radical. He was certainly wrong on the first point; Sagan makes it clear that he feels that belief in god is nothing more than superstitious mysticism. But taken together, this points to a subset of the American population which is not surprised by secularism and atheism, but rather excited by the prospect of conflict. While my friend Mike would say that progress only comes through conflict, I think that to see atheism as a spectacle is to undermine its power. Atheism is not a sport; it is an idea, and a powerful one. Secular politics may be unpopular in this country, but it is the very opposite of radical. Those who want atheism and secularism to thrive should indeed encourage unapologetic displays of nonfaith, but, please not for the sake of entertainment.

How to Stop Bullying

Nicholas Kristof ran a contest which ends today about bullying. I love that he decided that American teens were the experts on teen bullying. I know when I was in middle school and being bullied, I would spend my time in class critiquing every one of my teachers’ bungling attempts to make it all better. Most of their failings came from the fact that they were more interested in ridding their lives of conflict than of making my life easier or less painful, but they also lacked any understanding of teenage social dynamics and had forgotten what it was like to be a teenager. So I composed lists in my head of things I would do differently when I was a teacher. I’m not sure I’m going to be a teacher anymore (though still a definite possibility), but I still have plenty of ideas on how to stop bullying. I’m technically still a teenager, but I’m three years out of high school and it’s possible all my advice is hopelessly out of date. I wrote this as an open letter to teacher, and it’s a little didactic (I had a lot of options for format, and I decided against heartwrenching anecdotes from my bully-stricken past), but I like it anyway. Let me know what you think!

Open Letter to Teachers: Here’s How You Actually Stop Bullying
Hey there teachers,
Bullying is complicated, so I don’t blame you for not knowing how to stop it. You’re wrapped up in the immense difficulty of being friendly enough to be liked, strict enough to be respected and spectacular enough to be remembered. That is the job of a teacher, and it’s hard enough to teach the material effectively and walk the tightrope of student perception without getting involved in the nitty-gritty of student interpersonal relationships, especially if you have as much chance of doing harm as good.
So here’s what you need to know: students, bullies and bullied alike, need friends and advocates, and to varying degrees, teachers can be both. Students who are being bullied are hurt by far more than the words hurled at them; they are also being harmed by the loneliness of going through the experience alone. If you see students being bullied, reach out to them gently, reminding them that the teacher is always available for talking, comfort and a safe space. Then follow through, listening, giving advice and affirming that bulling is unacceptable and that it is not a reflection of the worth of the bullied. And do the same for bullies. Bullies gain social power by taking it away from others; they could use a friend. As a  teacher, as an authority figure but also a kind presence, you can speak firmly against the behavior of a bully, retreating not a bit from your position against the bully’s actions while still reaching out to a student, a child, who might need nothing else than a trusted adult to remind them that they are a worthwhile person and can be popular and respected without doing harm.
The advocate aspect of the your role is important, too. Any time bullying, of any degree, is witnessed, you should make it clear that such behavior is unacceptable. Importantly, it is the behavior that is being attacked, not the bully, and the bullied student is not being made a focus of attention. Rather, the mistreatment of fellow students is simply not to be tolerated at any time. The fact that the bullying can shift to times and places where you are not around is to be addressed by being a resource for any students involved in bullying, even as bystanders, as mentioned above. Students should know that you can be trusted, and that you will go to the administration or parents only when necessary, but then without hesitation, for example if there is any physical violence involved. This fairness and ability to analyze a situation serves you well when they suspect plagiarism or cheating, and it will serve you well here.
Bullying is a problem. It hurts children on either side of conflict as well as those who are not involved, and if it continues to stymie teachers, then children will have to fend for themselves while facing treatment that no person, let alone a teenager, should ever have to endure at the hands of their peers. The job of a teacher already encompasses the roles necessary to stop bullying; you must only appropriately act on them. No more excuses. Start now.