Sunday, May 14, 2017
In the Night Kitchen: A Review
Sendak, M. (1970) In the Night Kitchen. Harper Collins.
Maurice Sendak opened a lot of controversy with his children's book, In the Night Kitchen. The small book finds itself often challenged or banned from libraries. I had not read In the Night Kitchen as a child so I did not know anything about it. Now having read it, I don't know what the fuss is all about, both in regards to the controversy and to the praise it has received.
In the Night Kitchen revolves around Mickey, a little boy who hears noises and orders them downstairs to quiet down. Before he knows it, he floats downwards, losing his pajamas and lands in the night kitchen. There, three identical chefs, all who look like Oliver Hardy, apparently mistake Mickey for milk and stir him into the morning cake. Just before they put him in the over, Mickey pops out and says he's not the milk and the milk's not in him.
Now wearing the batter, he makes a plane out of dough and flies over the Milky Way (a large bottle of milk), where he dives in and pours out the milk for the Hardy Trio's cake (again, losing his covering and appearing nude). Job done, he shouts out "Cock-a-Doodle-Doo" and floats back up to his bed, with the ending noting that thanks to Mickey, we have cake every morning.
What freaks people out about In the Night Kitchen is the full-frontal nudity of Mickey, who is around five in my estimation. This child is naked twice in the book, and it isn't just that Mickey's nude. It's that we can clearly see his genitals. The sight of a nude child concerns many parents, who fear that this might be offensive, even pornographic.
I can only judge from my own perspective, but I don't see why parents or any other adult would be so horrified at the drawings.
This does not go up to the level of child pornography in any way, shape or form. Child pornography is when one gets sexual pleasure or gratification from images of or actual intercourse with children. In the Night Kitchen does not, to my mind, come close to having been created for such a purpose.
From my view, the illustrations of nudity are innocuous and inoffensive. There have been nude children in art before: primarily images of the Christ Child with Mary where He is undressed, or when we see mythological creatures like Cupid or cherubs who are similarly undressed.
For me, this is a case of the adults putting in their own perspectives, good or bad, into a children's book. I'm pretty strict about nudity and anything I might think is untoward or indecent, but given that the audience for In the Night Kitchen is children, I don't think many children will even really care. Boys know what they look like, and maybe girls will ask about what Mickey looks like, but a straightforward "that's what makes a boy a boy" I figure would work.
Ultimately, when it comes to Mickey's nudity, I think it is a case of they read too much into things.
In the Night Kitchen is beautifully illustrated, rich in detail and pleasant to the eye. Having said that, I thought it wasn't a particularly interesting story. A somewhat bossy child (he does yell at the beginning) dreams he falls into a special kitchen where cake that is served in the morning is made (with him almost in it) and he pours the milk.
I'm trying to think if I were a child, would I really care all that much about the story itself. I don't think I would. I'd love the illustrations, so full of fun and life and whimsy, but for the story? I know it was all a dream, but why would I care how cake for breakfast was made?
I don't even remember having cake for breakfast, at least on a regular basis.
With regards to the reason In the Night Kitchen is often challenged or banned (Mickey's nudity), I still hold that people read too much into it and put their own ideas about decency into it. It's a little boy, and while perhaps Sendak could have illustrated it in such as way as to hide Mickey's penis, he opted not to. I'm not going to begrudge him his artistic choice but I'm not going to label him a pervert either.
I do wonder whether the fact Sendak was openly gay might be behind these allegations of indecency. Gay man, nude boys: too many people reading too much into too little.
It is up to parents to decide what is and isn't appropriate for their children, not other adults either librarians or 'concerned adults'. It isn't pornographic or meant for arousal. In the Night Kitchen is really about the beautiful art within it. I just thought the story was dull, though it might entertain a very small child.
I would not ban or censor In the Night Kitchen, finding it much ado about nothing. I'd have no problem letting my children read it. I doubt however, it would be of much interest to them.