Why Read Kid Lit: Maurice Sendak’s IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN

Elizabeth Bastos

Staff Writer

Elizabeth Bastos has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, and writes at her blog 19th-Century Lady Naturalist. Follow her on Twitter: @elizabethbastos

I like Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, and his newest Bumble-Ardy about giving a pig a party, but I love, like I have a relationship with, In The Night Kitchen. I keep several children’s picture books apart from my kids’ disheveled bookshelves, for my own reading, because I think they are so good: In The Night Kitchen, also, The Snowy Day by Jack Ezra Keats, and everything by Peter Sis, and… (you get the point, I could go on. Some children’s books are really for us, the old, gray-haired children).

I was recently reading In The Night Kitchen to my kids, 6 and 4, they request it over and over; they think it’s uproariously funny. They point and giggle: “Look. At. His. Butt.”

This is what a lot of people remember about In The Night Kitchen. The butt. The full frontal. The banned book. The butt in question belongs to Mickey, the preschooler star of this fever dream of kid lit. Being naked is not at all the weirdest thing in the book, not at all. In fact, it’s the normalest part, after all, under our clothes we all are naked, but Mickey makes a plane out of bread dough to escape the fat Vaudevillian midnight kitchen bakers who play guitar on wooden spoons, “who bake till dawn so we can have cake in the morn.” He almost gets made into a cake, too. Oh, and he swims in a monstrously large milk bottle.

I ask my son, 6, “Isn’t this book weird, you know, like good weird?” He says, “Mom, it’s not weird, it’s normal to want to build a plane out of bread dough. Seriously.” I press on, “What about being made into a cake? Is that scary to you?” He says, “What? No! That would be so cool! Besides, Mickey doesn’t get made into a cake, he almost gets made into a cake.” Yes, a very important distinction, I agree. A close call.

This leads me to believe that it’s not In The Night Kitchen that’s extremely weird, what’s weird is being a child. There are a thousand close calls. Parents know this. Clothes come off without explanation, or peas are thrown across the room. What must the experience of life be like to a kid? Things happen, and then they suddenly stop happening, like they’re at Target, checking out squishy toys, and then they’re on the soccer field in an itchy uniform, probably wondering, what the fuck? and Maurice Sendak captured it. Genius. Here is a stunning interview with Terri Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air.

My daughter, 4, added, “It’s the best kind of book, Mommy, it’s a book about cake!” Yes, cake, and dreaming, and childhood, and yet Mickey’s parents sleep through it all. It’s a reminder to me as a parent to, “Wake up,” as the Buddha says.