In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak

Cover of "In the Night Kitchen" by Maurice SendakSendak, Maurice. In the Night Kitchen. New York: HarperCollins, 1970.

Plot:  When Mickey hears a racket in the night he shouts for quiet then falls down down down into the night kitchen. The night bakers try to bake him into the morning cake and Mickey realizes they need milk, not Mickey! Off he goes to find the missing ingredient…

Point of View: 3rd person

Theme: Night, adventure, baking, bakers, sleep, dreams, dreamscapes, imagination, cake, milk, cities

Literary Quality: Among boisterous bakers, a city constructed of pantry items, a starry sky and a whole lot of batter and dough, Mickey’s adventure is an unforgettable story that will have readers laughing and chanting along. The rhythms in this book are set by both the illustrations, which are built into large comic-book-like blocks and panels that create a sense of movement, and text. Indeed, this book is nearly impossible to read quietly to oneself and not boom the rhymes, songs, and chants out loud. The musicality is wonderful. For example, take a look at this spread:

two-page spread from "In the Night Kitchen"

“But right in the middle of the steaming and the making and the smelling and the baking Mickey poked through and said: “I’m not milk and the milk’s not me! I’m Mickey!”

The words and sounds of this story rise as much as Mickey’s dough-built airplane that follows. And while the illustrations are integral to the story, there’s something of the oral storytelling tradition here. The very first line: “Did you ever hear of Mickey,” suggests a story that has been told and retold. The rhymes, rhythms, and repetions are anchors for both storytellers and audiences. The final line, “And that’s why, thanks to Mickey, we have cake every morning,” also plays with the format of a folktale or explanation myth.  A perfect balance of energetic and soothing rhythms, the familiar and the whimsical, In the Night Kitchen is not your average bedtime story. But we would neither expect nor desire anything less from Sendak.

History: The publication of In the Night Kitchen in the early 1970s sparked controversy because Mickey sheds his clothing in his dream-state, and a nude little boy (with whose anatomy most people are familiar) can be seen in the cake batter, in the milk, and cock-a-doodle-dooing atop the milk bottle. Why there was such an uproar about the naked young boy is a bit of a puzzle: for one thing, the male anatomy, including that of children, is often the subject of fine art. Nevertheless, upon publication some librarians and teachers pulled the book from the shelves or added their own little diaper to the illustrations of Mickey!

Audience: Ages 3-8. The imaginatinative story and images will continue to thrill both boys and girls at any time of day (or night!).

Personal reaction: In the Night Kitchen was a personal favorite of mine growing up. I have fond memories of reading the book with parents and to myself. Like most children, I’m sure, it never struck me as odd that Mickey fell out of his clothes or skinny-dipped in the milk. His nudity seemed unremarkable and natural in the context of his dream adventure. I was therefore surprised to learn, as an adult, of the past controversy. The images, words, and sounds of the story have all been imprinted in my mind. The bakers’ song, “Milk in the batter! Milk in the batter! We bake cake! And nothing’s the matter!” is one that I still find myself singing aloud in my own day kitchen. A book to read, re-read, and read again.


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