In The Night Kitchen
We first met Max in Where the Wild Things Are. Maurice Sendak’s picture book, In The Night Kitchen shows us a different Max . . . a little older, and dealing with different issues now . . . but Sendak still has a way of putting his finger right on the pulse of the young man. Sendak, in Where The Wild Things Are, picked up on how hard it is for a toddler to follow the rules and control his own temper, his own Wild Things.
Here, he’s right with Max as Max hears noises in the night. Things going
Dump, Lump, Clump
Max yells, “Quiet down there.,” and falls out of his clothes and floats down past the moon in the window and his parents in bed into The Night Kitchen, where he meets the bakers, who look oddly like a cross between Oliver Hardy and Adolf Hitler. The bakers mix and pound the batter, evidently mistaking Mickey with Milk, and put it in the oven to bake ( . . . and yes, the creepy association with ovens and the holocaust did cross Sendak’s mind, he said in an interview I can’t lay my hands on right now).
Mickey pops up out of the baking batter and says “I’m not the Milk and the Milk’s not me ! I’m Mickey.” Mickey builds a batter airplane and flies through the night kitchen to get milk for the batter, diving into the building-sized milk bottle and pouring milk from the bottle down to the baking bowl held by the bakers below and saving the day . . . er . . . night. Mickey climbs out of the bottle and slides down and into bed, “cake free and dried.”
So what’s it all mean, why do kids love it and why all the controversy?
The story begins, as all stories do, with bumping in the night. And when things at home go bump in the night, they usually involve one’s parents, and we aren’t privy to what all the bumping means. Max yells at the offenders to be quiet and tumbles out of his clothes and floats past a moon and his parents, who we’re assured but don’t quite believe are sleeping tight . . . Max is naked, Sendak has said, primarily because he didn’t want to deal with mess of batter and clothes, but I think perhaps it is also in part because Max is falling into a dream about just what was happening with those noises in the night and there are sensual and sexual things associated with the noises.
Lucy Rollin, in her essay on Maurice Sendak’s picture books in Rollin and West, Psychoanalytic Responses to Children’s Literature, points out that when Max yelled “Quiet Down There!” he could have been talking to his own genitals, not just the noises.
Max falls into the richly drawn and detailed Night Kitchen, where he is mistaken for the milk in the batter and stirred and beaten to make a delicious Mickey-Cake. And of course the rhythm of the chanting and milk and cake in the oven reinforce our feeling that this has something to do with the making of a new baby . . . but remember “I’m not the milk and the milk’s not me! I’m Mickey!” Mickey rises, dressed in the batter and gets the real milk the Mickey way.
There are details here that are worth a lot more space than I’m willing to give them, but I want to call attention to the lush 2 page spread with Mickey flying over the kitchen-city above the milk bottle, and especially to the expressions on the faces of the 3 bakers, and the expression on Mickey’s face. Mickey is almost expressionless–certainly there’s no exultation there, and no worry–and the bakers are divided: two look concerned and one hopeful. Mickey dives into the milk, and there, as his batter-clothing dissolves Mickey the Milkman chants “I’m in the Milk and the Milk’s in me. God Bless Milk and God Bless Me.” And the arrow on the speech bubble containing those words looks almost like an umbilical cord for the Mickey-fetus. It’s not hard to view this as a young child’s fantasy of the making of babies, and it’s also not hard to view it, as Lucy Rollin suggests, as an infantile masturbation fantasy. Even the end of the story, as a naked, happy Max slides down the side of the milk bottle into bed, smiles and rolls over in his pajamas and drifts off to sleep smiling reinforces our feeling that some tension has been released . . . this is not the angry Max yelling “Be Quiet!” at the beginning of the book.
Mickey must know that those forbidden, hidden bumps in the night feel good, and that they have something to do with making babies . . . and that, even more than the fact of Mickey’s 3 year-old (or so) nudity, is the reason I think that adults feel so uncomfortable with this book, and that children love it; the book speaks honestly to the child-reader, on the levels of his/her own fantasies.
This is a classic. Highly recommended.
Filed under: kidlit, Picture books, What's it all mean, Why do kids love it | 1 Comment
Tags: In The Night Kitchen, infantile sexuality, Lucy Rollin, Maurice Sendak