Banned Books Week (BBW) is an annual event sponsored by the American Library Association (ALA) to celebrate the freedom to read. During this week, attention is drawn to actual or attempted bannings of books across the U.S. As the ALA website notes:
“…librarians, teachers, and booksellers across the country … use Banned Books Week each year to teach the importance of our First Amendment rights and the power of literature, and to draw attention to the danger that exists when restraints are imposed on the availability of information in a free society.”
According to the American Library Association’s List of the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books from 2000-2009 Maurice Sendak’s book for children, In the Night Kitchen, is Number 24.
Mickey is a toddler who dreams of floating out of his pajamas, “past the moon & his mama & papa sleeping tight” and into a bowl of batter in the night kitchen. This is where, we learn, bakers bake until dawn “so we can have cake in the morn.” The bakers don’t seem to mind they are now baking up a “Mickey cake,” but suddenly Mickey pokes through the batter and jumps out and into the bread dough. There, he pounds the dough until it turns into an airplane: “Then Mickey in dough was just on his way.” He flies into a jug of milk, then slides down the side, and gets back into bed all “cakefree and dried.” “And that’s why,” Sendak concludes, “thanks to Mickey, we have cake every morning.”
This book has horrified people presumably because of the nudity of this little boy. One suspects, however, that the young listeners to this book (most of whom would be read to, rather than being readers of), would not see the pictures as provocative. Personally, I find the artwork gloriously colorful and ebulliently fantastical. I love this book.
In The Art of Maurice Sendak, the author discusses all his childhood impressions that made their way into the creation of In the Night Kitchen. Sendak has reported that there are even intimations of the Holocaust, from the baker sporting a Hitler moustache, to the attempt by the bakers to put the little boy into the oven.
But I find it doesn’t matter much to know the background of the pictures. One can approach the book in innocence and still fall in love with the main character Mickey and the packed, endlessly fascinating artwork: an art, Sendak says, that “encompasses the Empire State Building, syncopated Disney cartoons, and aluminum-clad, comic-book heroes.”
The story itself is inspirational and happy: Mickey dreams of peril and a daring self-rescue in a nighttime abandoned bakery. He wakes up safe and happy the next morning, feeling more powerful and satisfied than before.
Evaluation: A rich, satisfying treat that has less calories than one from a real bakery, and will last you a lifetime, because it is enchanting for all ages.
Note: This book has won a number of awards, which are listed here.
Published by Harper & Row, 1970, and reprinted many times thereafter.
You can watch President Obama reading this book to kids thanks to YouTube: