Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, a 1970 picture book following a child’s romp through a surreal nocturnal bakery, is a weird book, but it’s up to your own personal interpretation whether it’s “delightfully weird” or “uncomfortably weird.”
I first became aware of it thanks to its reputation as “the book with the naked kid” – the young hero, three-year-old Mickey, loses his clothes early in the story, and he spends a fair amount of the rest of the tale naked, with his penis frequently visible. That choice alone has caused the book to be challenged or banned on several occasions and, while, sure, it is unusual to see a naked child in a picture book, it’s a fairly lame cause for controversy. Mickey isn’t sexualized AT ALL and, let’s be honest, most kids, thanks to diaper changes or older or younger siblings, have seen a baby or toddler naked before.
I’d wager ten bucks that any parent who ever tried to have In the Night Kitchen removed from their local library laughed like crazy whenever their two-year-old did a pre-bath naked run through their house, particularly if it was in front of company, so it’s ridiculous to try to turn Mickey’s nakedness into anything perverse or predatory. When we first read the book, my daughter snorted and giggled at seeing Mickey naked for the first time, but, every subsequent time we’ve read it, his nudity has almost never come up. When she does notice it now, she just smiles and says, “He lost his clothes. What a goofball.”
But, all nakedness aside, I do find In the Night Kitchen to be a fairly difficult book to read. Don’t get me wrong – my daughter LOVES it. She thinks it’s funny and strange, she loves pouring over the little details in the backgrounds of the Night Kitchen, and she has fond memories of visiting Philadelphia’s Please Touch Kids’ Museum where she played on huge reproductions of scenes from Night Kitchen and Where the Wild Things Are. (It’s an awesome museum.) If you ask her to tell you what the story of In the Night Kitchen is, she can’t really verbalize it, but she knows, without a doubt, that she likes it.
My issue with In the Night Kitchen is a rhythm thing. For whatever reason, when reading Night Kitchen at bed-time, I find myself tripping over the words constantly. I just can’t figure out its groove. The words are presented more like verse than a normal narrative – and maybe that’s coloring my reading of it – but all of my attempts to find its poetic cadence have failed miserably. And I realize that it’s my problem, not Sendak’s. It’s not fair for me to fault him for my inability to hone in on the perfect inflection for his story. I like that everything about In the Night Kitchen is atypical. I like that it’s not a sentimental, sing-song nursery rhyme. I’m a guy who loves Vonnegut and Terry Gilliam movies – I like weird. However, on a personal level, I find reading In the Night Kitchen out loud a strangely jarring experience. It’s a kind of weird that I’ve never fully figured out and, at some level, it makes me uncomfortable.
Which, in and of itself, is weird. Fill a picture book with a thousand naked children and I won’t bat an eye, but get a little surreal and atonal with the free verse, and I get all frustrated and cranky. Again, this speaks to my failings, not the book’s, but while I love Sendak, I will admit that In the Night Kitchen is not a book for everyone. For me, In the Night Kitchen is a PERFECT library book – it has the potential to be a big hit or a big miss, depending on your household, so being able to pilot it at your local library first before bringing it home is a very good thing.
If there are any other parents out there who have my rhythm or weirdness issues with In the Night Kitchen, I found two videos that might help. The first is a Weston Woods animated version of In the Night Kitchen, which, honestly, really helped me in terms of hearing how someone else reads the story. And the second is an extremely funny video from the Dad Labs – called “Owen’s Reading Nook” – where the reader, Owen… has some very honest reactions to the inherent WTF weirdness of In the Night Kitchen. Enjoy.