Thursday, May 17, 2012

In the Night Kitchen: Part 2

The project continues! I'm really enjoying this opportunity to reread a valued childhood book and rexamine it with fresh and overly analytic eyes. I hope to finish before the end of the week. Unlikely, I know, but the goal remains. In case you don't know what I'm talking about, here's Part 1. Without further ado!

Page 5Source: Maurice Sendak

I remember very little about my reactions to this page as a child, which is understandable given that it serves mostly as transition. I wonder a great deal about Sendak's choice of jams and other kitchen objects, whether they are from his memory, or imagination, or something else. I do want to point out the visual aspect of the text "Mickey Oven" which evokes Disney, alluding to a darker side, perhaps, of that other children's favorite, demonstrating with just a subtle symbol that most children's fantasy is grimmer than it appears. The rhyming and compound word "Mickey-cake" seem to come straight out of the pat-a-cake rhyme game, reclaiming the excitement of a child at having a cake, a real life physical object, marked with the name that signifies their identity and in that marking becomes a part of the universe that is cordoned off just for them. That world in which the cakes are all for you, brought into existence by singing games, is the real-life analogue of the Night Kitchen, that exotic but almost-close-enough-to-touch world where bakers make cakes for the morning, cakes that are in fact, not only for you and named for you, but made of you, too.

Page 6
Maurice Sendak

Oddly, I don't remember this page at all. Reading it now felt like reading it for the first time, and this first time reader thought, look how empowered Mickey is! There is this fanciful world in which the cakes are for you, but what if that's not what you want? What if the conventional path laid out, in which things (clothes coming off, falling into another world, being folded into a batter) simply happen to you, without your say. What if, even though, because this is fantasy, you are delighted at all of these lovely things, and there's nothing wrong with them at all, you want to act? It remind me greatly of Knight's Castle, by Edward Eager, in which the protagonist children become part of the world of their knights and dolls, and occasionally things go quite dangerously awry. The way to get out of the danger is to remind yourself that it is fantasy and not real, and , there is a scene in Knight's castle in which Ann, the youngest child, petulantly cries out the words that end the magic, and while the other children are upset with her, it is her way of asserting herself and her power over the events transpiring that affect her. Similarly, Mickey is defiant, changing the course of the story, disturbing the calm, nightly patterns of the bakers, and proudly stating, "I'm not the milk and the milk's not me! I'm Mickey!" There will be no denial of identity in Maurice Sendak's book, not like the polite children in most children's literature, who could be replaced easily by their counterparts in similar formulaic books. No, Mickey knows who he is, and encourages readers, by example, to know who they are, too, and to shout it unashamedly.

Page 7
Maurice Sendak

This I remember. This I remember as being a splendid set of instructions for any life task, as if if you only could pound and pull and work enough, you could build anything, even a plane made of bread dough. It's important, I think, that the bread dough was simply lying around; it emphasizes the completeness of the Night Kitchen. It is not only a vehicle for the story, but an entire world with characters and objects we haven't necessarily heard about yet. In any fantasy story, the protagonist meeting new characters from the world reminds the reader just how complex it is, just how real it is, just how much there is to discover. It allows the reader to consider the world as one to discover, rather than to create, a beautiful fiction (since authors and readers do, in fact, together construct these worlds) that lets us truly fall into the magic of fantasy.

Mickey's facial expressions are important here. He begins, as he has been most of the story, idyllically tranquil, then becomes frustrated and scared in the third panel. That's not mentioned in the text at all, so we have to divine it for ourselves, noting the brief uncertainty before sheer determination and talent set in. After all, Mickey is no conventional protagonist. He is not serendipitously perfect. He is in a world that is not of his creation, and though his intent to escape is pure, he's not quite sure how to do it. Soon enough, though, he devises a plan, and executes it. All the while the background changes, showing us more and more of this strange world, even if it doesn't quite accord with spatial physics.

Page 8
Source: Maurice Sendak

And he does it! He succeeds in his crazy plan and manages to fly, fulfilling the imaginations of countless children. Two things of note on this page: the plane is neither purely nor fully functional. That is to say, Mickey wants the plane to "look[] ok", to have a decorative star, simply because he wants it there. We notice that the mobile on the first page has something that could be a star on it, but on the body instead of the wing. Secondly, the plane drops pieces of dough as it flies, because Mickey isn't perfect, and neither are his creations. What are a few pieces missing when you've just made a plane out of nothing but bread dough and will?

The next page doesn't make any sense except in the context of the flow of the plot, so I'll stop here for now. This is really great fun, and I hope my readers (the few that there are) are enjoying it as well. It's so nice to reminisce about great books.


  1. Just discovered this last month and my three year old loves it! I do too. It must draw from some dreams that Sendak had - perhaps quite regularly. It is a real privilege that someone shares such intimate thoughts, dreams, fears with us, and so skillfully.

  2. Just discovered this last month and my three year old loves it! I do too. It must draw from some dreams that Sendak had - perhaps quite regularly. It is a real privilege that someone shares such intimate thoughts, dreams, fears with us, and so skillfully.