In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Weird, wonderful Maurice Sendak

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I will certainly be trying more David Wiesner on our 3-year-old crowd -- will let you know the results.

Tonight we read, for probably the thousandth time, a classic weird and wonderful Maurice Sendak book: In the Night Kitchen.  It's one of the formative books of my childhood, and was seminal Maurice Sendak for me, right up there with the now-ubiquitous Where the Wild Things Are and the satisfyingly tiny books of The Nutshell Library.  I honestly don't have a sense of how well-known and currently popular it is -- do lots of people buy it these days?

One of the classic reading photos in our family is of me, age 6ish, reading it to Michael, probably 1 1/2, both of us intensely concentrated.  (That photo is in a hard-to-open frame at my parents' apartment; here's the best picture my mom could snap of it through the glass.)

In the Night Kitchen  is the story of Mickey, who is woken up by "a racket in the night."  When he gets up to shout for quiet, he falls "through the dark, out of his clothes, past the moon & his mama & papa sleeping tight...into the light of the night kitchen."  (It's hard to write about this book without just quoting the whole thing!)  The "night kitchen" is a city made of milk carton, jam jar, and boxed good buildings decorated with giant wire whisks: a child's-eye view of the mysteries of cooking and baking.  The bakers here are three large identical men in bakers' clothes.  They mix Mickey into cake batter and try to bake him, but Mickey pops out covered in cake dough: "I'm not the milk, and the milk's not me!  I'm Mickey!"  He skips over to the bread dough, makes an airplane out of it, and flies up to get milk from a giant milk bottle, which he dives into, singing: "I'm in the milk, and the milk's in me.  God bless milk and God bless me!"  The bakers bake their cake, Mickey returns to bed, "And that's why, thanks to Mickey, we have cake every morning."

You have to wonder what happened in Sendak's childhood.  I'm hard-pressed to explain it all, other than feeling like it has to do with a child's new understanding of his own individual identity, his me-ness, in a world which is big and strange and trying to force him to be what he's not.  Why the bakers mistake him for milk in the first place, or why they look like Oliver Hardy, or who in the world actually has cake every morning, I don't know.  I do know that this is a deeply satisfying read.  I'm looking forward to the day when Eleanor gets to read it to Isabel, as well.

Love, Annie

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