Monday, September 27, 2010

Review: In the Night Kitchen

For those of you who don't know, this is Banned Books Week a campaign of the American Library Association.  Celebrating banned books is encouraged every September as kids head back to schools and are presumably introduced to books their parents may or may not appreciate.

The Canadian Library Association, while not mounting a campaign per se, also keeps a list of all book challenges.  You can find the Canadian list for 2009 here: Challenges to Canadian Library Resources and Policies.  If you're from somewhere other than Canada or the US, there's a good chance your own library association keeps a list of books challenged in your country.  Go have a look; you're sure to find a book or two on it that will appeal.

In honour of Banned Books Week, I'll be reviewing three picture books which have been challenged repeatedly.  Here's the first:

Find at
Find at
Title: In the Night Kitchen
Author/Illustrator: Maurice Sendak
Publisher: Random House Children's Books
Year: 1970
Format: Paperback, also available in hardcover
Pages: 40
Age Range: Toddler, Preschooler, Early Reader
Kid Love Factor: 4/5
Adult Sanity Factor: 4.5/5

In the Night Kitchen is of course a classic. Mickey, a child of about two or three, is awoken by noises in the night and falls out of his clothes and into a giant bowl of batter the Night Kitchen.  There are three bakers who apparently mistake Mickey for milk and mix him into the bowl and place it in the oven.  Luckily, Mickey escapes the oven, tells off the bakers, and turns some bread dough into an airplane, which he flies to the top of a giant bottle of milk.  Mickey swims in the milk and then pours some down for the bakers to make their cake.  Mickey then crows like a rooster and slides down the milk bottle and back into bed.

And he grabbed the cup as he flew up
And up
And up
And over the top of the Milky Way in the Night Kitchen.

Whew.  I wish I had more awesome dreams like that.  You know the ones: they enchanted you when you were a child and still do to a certain extent, though now you wonder what exactly it was you ate/drank/smoked yesterday to cause them.

The rhythm of the text is fantastic, but it's really the illustrations that carry the day here.  To me, the three bakers look like they're the identical triplet cousins of Oliver Hardy, although apparently Selmek may have been referring to the Holocaust with their small black mustaches and their baking of Mickey.  In any case, Mickey's irritation, frustration, wonder, and mischief all come through brilliantly.  The backgrounds are amazing, resembling the depression or wartime era Manhattan skyline made completely out of kitchen products and utensils.  The detail is astounding with Hosmer's Free Running Sugar, Kneitel's Fandango, Woody's Kosher Salt, and whatever Ta-Ka-Kake is supposed to be.  On second thought, I'm fairly sure I don't want to know...

The illustrations are also the reason the book has made challenged and banned book lists for years.  See, Sendak had the audacity to keep little naked Mickey anatomically correct.  It's not detailed, but Mickey definitely has a penis and testicles.  I'm not entirely sure what the problem of a naked three-year-old is, given that half the real ones on the planet would run around naked every day if given the choice, but apparently it's highly offensive in a children's book.


Boo loves the rhythm and rhyme of the text and the sing-song way in which we read it. He's been fascinated with the pictures from well before he was speaking, and he continues to love pointing out the stars and moon and milk et al.

And that's why, thanks to Mickey
We have cake every morning.

For a hint of irony on the whole book banning thing, I must admit to verbally editing the end of the book when we read it to say "we have milk every morning", but only because I don't want to start an argument with my literal little man on why pancakes aren't going to happen every day.

Autism Spectrum Bonus: In the Night Kitchen is almost a comic book in the way it relies on the pictures to tell the story which might appeal to more visual learners, while the rhythm and rhyme of the text might encourage vocalizations, especially during the bakers' two chants and the rooster crow at the end.  The incredibly detailed backgrounds give you plenty of opportunity to encourage pointing and interaction with Where's Waldo type questions like "Can you find an egg-beater?  What about a tomato?" And for those just  learning to name body parts, especially little boys, there aren't too many other picture books that allow you to practice "bum" and "penis" identification.

Bottom Line:
Boo takes the book to the reading nook
And climbs into Sam's lap for The Night Kitchen.


In the Night Kitchen at

In the Night Kitchen at

Banned Books Week 2010


  1. Lovely review of a great book. Yeah, the nakedness thing is a funny one. Over here, we always know that if a film as a high US rating it will be because of the smidgen of nudity or sex in it and not because of the masses of violence.Violence on its own doesn't seem to be a problem but naked flesh... It's one of the bigger cultural divides which separates one side of the pond from the other I think.

  2. Canada isn't quite so...prudish (that's so going to get me in trouble, I bet) on the whole sexuality thing as the US is. Canadian TV shows tend to get lower ratings for sex/nudity and higher ratings for violence than their American peers, though I have no doubt we're more stodgy about it than the UK is. Last time I was in England I saw a collection of European commercials that were banned (or not even attempted) in North America that made me bust a gut laughing.

    There's an urban legend that the South Park movie was originally rated NC-17 due to sexually explicit humour, so the creators took out most of the sex and replaced it with gore and got it down to an R. That's unlikely to actually be true, but it's always flabergasted me that it's somehow okay to show kids about hatred and destruction but not about love and biology.

  3. I had no idea that this was on any banned book lists. I've always thought that it was the weirdest, most psychodelic book ever, but not offensive. The Holocaust thing never even occurred to me. Audrey loves any book that involves baked goods.

  4. It's on the "most banned books of the decade" lists for the 80s and 90s...hopefully not the 2000s, but I haven't actually seen that list to be sure.

    I didn't see the Holocaust connection for myself either, though Mickey going into the oven frightened me when I was a child. Sendak gave an interview on the NPR at one point that talks about it. But while I didn't make the connection myself, the detail in the illustrations has always suggested a Jewish bakery to me (and I've spent enough time in Montreal enough to know one when I gloriously smell, er, see it), so it's not particularly surprising to me.

    I'm with Audrey on the whole baked goods thing.

  5. We have never read this; thanks for the great review. :) (PS The only time I ever had a dream that vivid was when a doctor prescribed me Ambien. I took one, saw the entire room transform into circus animals...clock became an elephant, there was a monkey on my blinds, etc. I threw those away the next day, but maybe I should have written a children's book first! ;)).

  6. hooray for this post! we need way, way more banned books in our lives. in fact, i hope they ban even more books so that we can read them anyway and love them all the more. i can't wait for "tropic of cancer", the illustrated pop-up book.

  7. @Infant Bib - I whole-heartedly recommend you give it a try (P.S. The last time I had super-wonky dreams myself was when I had pneumonia and was taking hydrocodone, though unlike your Ambien dreams, I enjoyed mine ;)).

    @M - LOL to the Tropic of Cancer pop-up book! And yay for your loving banned books in general.

  8. Update for Lynn: In the Night Kitchen does indeed rank as the 24th most banned book for the 2000-2009 decade.

    The Top 100 to me reads like a must-put-on-hold-at-the-library list. And I can't say how much it amuses me that Fahrenheit 451 is on it.


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