People will be talking about “Where the Wild Things Are” today after hearing of author Maurice Sendak’s death at the age of 83.
Sendak’s monstrously entertaining tale deserves the praise. It’s the kind of children’s story we read over and again and never quite forget no matter how old we grow to be. The illustrations alone are precious, original creations that rub up against our nightmares without scaring small minds.
For me, Sendak’s “In the Night Kitchen” shouldn’t be overlooked in the glut of Sendak tributes to come over the next 24 hours.
I never gave children’s books much attention as an adult. I read Sendak’s “Wild Things” and a few other timeless stories as a boy, but my interests matured over time and I left kiddie fare behind for novels by Updike, Irving and Tyler.
That all changed when I became a father. Now, I spend almost every night reading one children’s book after another to my oldest child, Eli. He enjoys them all, from “The Cat in the Hat” to “Go Away Shelley Boo,” but most of the stories make my teeth itch. For every great children’s book there are dozens that are truly awful to an adult mind.
Flimsy prose. Clumsy rhymes. Inelegant imagery. Just plain lazy, to put it bluntly.
And then there’s “In the Night Kitchen.” Sendak’s illustrations grabbed me first. The story features young, adventurous Mickey as he stirs from his bed and embarks on a rather strange adventure. He meets with a trio of portly chefs who look remarkably similar to Oliver Hardy from Laurel & Hardy fame.
Young Mickey is thrown into cake batter, flies across the sky and ends up right where he started, safe and sound in his own bed. But it’s the moments in between which make every reading a special experience. Children demand the same stories over and again, so a great children’s book must operate on a few levels beyond bright colors and snappy rhymes.
“Night Kitchen” feels like a surrealist painting, one that can be interpreted in new ways with every glimpse. To me, the story captures both the innocence and precocious nature of a child’s mind. Mickey is brave and curious, eager for new experiences and unafraid of where they might lead.
Sendak uses repetition, colorful phrases and vivid pictures to keep our attention. The inclusion of an oven, as well as the short mustaches worn by the chefs, tie the story to the Holocaust, a recurring theme in Sendak’s work.
That’s the kind of connection small minds will undoubtedly miss, but it shows Sendak’s knack for weaving important themes within his marvelous narratives.
“In the Night Kitchen” drew fire from some quarters for its nudity. Yes, young Mickey is shown au natural in a few pages, although the depiction is thoroughly innocent and asexual. Anyone who has a child knows that toddlers often enjoy getting naked. It’s a stage, and it fades (or so I’m told).
My son loves when I read “In the Night Kitchen” to him, even if he appreciates it for less cerebral reasons than his dad. But Sendak’s ability to connect young and older readers in a manner that doesn’t insult either group is a gift that will surely be missed.