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
Source: Telegraph.co.uk

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

2 thoughts on “In the Night Kitchen: Part 1

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

  2. […] 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 14Source: […]

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