I was so young when my parents first introduced me to Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen that I have no memory of that first reading. I don't know if I was small enough that I couldn't yet turn the pages on my own. Or if maybe I was old enough to hold the book for my younger brother while my mother or father read to us. I only know that the book was always there, on the shelf with all our other favorite books, to be read over, and over, and over. I loved, and still love, the plane Mickey builds out of dough, and how he tumbles in and out of the panels of the illustrations.
Like so many of Sendak's books, In the Night Kitchen is darkly magical. In it he creates a world where children explore, make mischief, and encounter real danger, all while blissfully away from the protection and oversight of their parents. Sendak also chose to draw Mickey without his pajamas, which is why many parents, teachers and schools have requested that the book be withdrawn, banned, altered and even burned. Even librarians are guilty of wanting to dress, cover and suppress Mickey, as detailed in this letter, opens a new window* written in 1972, by Sendak's editor, Ursula Nordstrom, to a school librarian who did the unthinkable and burned a copy of In the Night Kitchen.
I think adults are made so uncomfortable by Sendak's creations because of the fierce independence of his child protagonists. Mickey and Max, two of Sendak's most famous characters, traverse oceans, command armies of monsters, outwit strange, sadistic bakers and avoid being made into cake, all without the protection of their parents. They also love their magical adventures, and only return home because they are still small children and haven't stopped responding to the tidal pull of mama and papa. What parent wouldn't feel uncomfortable being reminded of the crazy and sometimes monstrous world that they will eventually give their children up to? Discomfort made even worse when Max and Mickey's independence reminds parents that one day their child will be grown and no longer feel the need to return home from their adventures.
My husband and I have shared In the Night Kitchen with our three boys. I had the honor of reading it to them for the first time and they loved it - not a peep out of them the entire time I was reading. They were transfixed and I was right there with them, sharing their journey, for now.
*This piece of historical correspondence is archived on Letters of Note, opens a new window, an amazing site that publishes correspondence from historical places, people and events. If you haven't yet discovered it you are in for a real treat.