In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak is a children’s book published in 1970. As in Sendak’s previous children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, the book follows a child through a dreamlike world and adventure. It won the Caldecott Honor medal in 1971.
Mickey is a young child who is in bed and hears a commotion downstairs. When he stands on his bed to shout “quiet down there!” to the noisemakers, he falls out of bed, out of his clothes, past his sleeping parents, and into the night kitchen, where three chefs (who have Hitler mustaches) are baking a cake for the morning. Mickey falls into the cake batter, and the bakers pour the Mickey batter into the cake pan and put it in the oven. Mickey bursts out of the oven during the baking. He escapes the oven and falls into bread dough, which he forms into an airplane and flies to a giant bottle of milk for the bakers, who are freaking out about Mickey’s escape from the cake. Mickey pours out milk for the morning cake and the bakers are satisfied and continue to bake the cake. Mickey wakes up, “cakefree and dried,” in his bed and we learn “that’s why, thanks to Mickey, we have cake every morning.”
The controversy of In the Night Kitchen lies in the appearance of Mickey’s naked body, which does not give him the Ken doll treatment at all, and the chefs appearing unconcerned about baking a young boy. In an interview with NPR in 1986, Sendak said about the nudity issue:
Well, we live in a very strange society. I mean, I was outraged when that book came out and there was a such a hullabaloo over his genitals.
I mean, I assumed everybody knew little boys had that and that this wasn’t a breakthrough. The fact that people considered that outrageous: incredible. I mean, you go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you go to the Frick, you go to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and there’s a Christ child with his penis. It’s accepted in fine art, but somehow in books for children there’s a taboo.
Well, the hell with that. I mean, I didn’t set out to cause a scandal. I set out to do a very particular work where he had to be naked in order to confront a particular dream he was in. You don’t go into a dream wearing Fruit of the Loom underwear or PJs. You go tutto. You go yourself, your being, and that’s why he was naked, and it was idiocy. It was incredible idiocy what went on over that book for many, many years about Mickey being naked.
Maurice Sendak, 1986
It was no coincidence that the chefs have Hitler-esque appearances. Sendak was Jewish and was deeply affected by the Holocaust; his parents were Polish immigrants and most of his extended family was killed in concentration camps. The oven and the bakers insistence in baking him are a reference to the Holocaust (Gross 2003).
According to the American Library Association, In the Night Kitchen is one of the most frequently banned or challenged books due to Mickey’s nudity and the phallic suggestions of the milk bottle. Eyeroll.
At the end of the day, the book, like all of Sendak’s work, is full of vivid pictures and a fun story. Childhood can be scary and dangerous, but through Mickey’s ingenuity and leadership, he survives enough for cake in the morning. I really enjoyed the book and think that children would enjoy it as well. It’s fun!
And reading the book makes me want cake.
This is Maurice Sendak’s comic strip apotheosis of the Thirties/ dusky dream of sensual bliss/ bim bam boom bombshell of a child-echoing picture book. Sometimes Mickey’s toss and turn from bed into the night kitchen and back keeps in time to internal rhyme, or sets up a rhythmic chant or a remembrance of things heard, or makes sport with words; while what’s doing in the kitchen is the concoction of a cake by three Oliver Hardy cooks who take Mickey for milk until “right in the middle of the steaming and the making and the smelling and the baking Mickey poked through and said I’M NOT THE MILK AND THE MILK’S NOT ME! I’M MICKEY!” But wait: in his bread dough plane with his milk-pitcher helmet, Mickey flies up and up and up “and over the top of the Milky Way,” then dives down into the bottle “singing ‘I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me. God Bless Milk and God Bless Me!’” God bless naked and naturally exposed, Mickey is pure joy. . . or as the cooks chorus “MILK IN THE BATTER! MILK IN THE BATTER! WE BAKE CAKE! AND NOTHING’S THE MATTER!” (Can it go without saying that the pictures are superb.)
Kirkus Reviews, 1970
In the Night Kitchen is perhaps the closest any children’s book has come to telling an authentic dream since the days of George MacDonald who, after all, lived in that pre-Freudian world where it was still possible that dreams were messages from Faerie. That Night Kitchen also works as a story is a measure of Sendak’s power and control. Sendak’s major concern is always the integrity and the individuality of a child, who will be neither civilized nor molded. Mickey creates the airplane of his escape from the dough that was to have molded him into shape. Max, in Wild Things, turns the wild things to his own will. Sendak’s heroes return home, but never entirely forsake the wild places of their journeys.
The New York Review of Books, 1970
The most obvious use would be to use this book prominently in a Banned Books display. The fervor over Mickey’s nudity was overwhelming when the book was published, but upon Sendak’s death in May of 2012, libraries are re-examining the book to introduce in circulation. This book would be an easy way to discuss censorship with children.
Gross, Terry. (Producer). 2003, October 30. “Interview with Maurice Sendak.” Fresh Air with Terry Gross. NPR, National Public Radio. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=152248901
Hentoff, Margot. (1970). “Little private lives.” The New York Review of Books. Retrieved from https://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1970/dec/17/little-private-lives/?pagination=false
Kirkus’ Reviews. (1970). “In the night kitchen.” Kirkus Book Reviews. Retrieved from https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/maurice-sendak/in-the-night-kitchen/#review