Last night I woke up with a start. I couldn’t tell you what woke me (I was dreaming about sharks, so maybe that was it), but I noticed again what I’ve noticed before: waking up in the night feels different. It’s a bit more permissive, there in the dark. Have you ever quietly talked in a dark room? You can confess things: “I actually don’t like cilantro,” you whisper. (Well, maybe you’d admit to something else, but if you say you don’t like mushrooms I’m afraid we can’t be friends.) You can believe things in the dark, too: “Someone came knocking at my wee, small door.” Maybe you even believe you saw a UFO.
But that’s just in the dark. Maybe you stayed up late. Maybe you’re drowsing in bed. What about when you wake up? You’ve been dreaming, and suddenly– what were you dreaming? Was that a dolphin or a shark? Your eyes struggle between open and closed, and finally settle on rising up, with that funny feeling as your eyelashes disentangle. Is the room light or dark, you wonder as your eyes get used to being open. And with that you get the distinction between being awake in the night and waking up in the night. Is it light or dark? Did that dream make sense? It had made perfect sense, and it still does make sense, but in the morning it won’t make sense, and probably will have faded away. When you’re awake at night and a bit drowsy, you might believe you see a UFO. If you wake up in the night, you’re not entirely sure that you aren’t floating over to the UFO and having an extended conversation with the alien invading force about the difficulties involved in finding a really good teapot.
In the Night Kitchen, written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak, isn’t a story about being awake at night; it’s a story about waking up in the night. And that’s what I love about it.
I thought about asking you if you ever heard of Mickey, but stopped myself: a) you have, I’m sure; b) that’s appallingly kitsch and Sendak would have winced. I’m forcing myself to tell you as penance. The point is, we all know of Mickey and his wild domestic adventure. But has it ever occurred to you that the story is simply this?: “One night a boy woke up and helped bake a cake.” It takes Maurice Sendak to take that story and make it wild, original, almost magical. (Note: this isn’t the only Sendak story where that happens. Chicken Soup with Rice takes the world’s most comforting food and turns it into a crazy adventure. Sendak loves these contrasts.) This is, in fact, the story the Changeling had to be read every night for several months, but when I recommended it to a friend as a good present for his nephew, he looked it over and refused: “It’s too scary.”
We’re here to consider how this simple story becomes such a wild, possibly frightening, adventure. What does Maurice Sendak do? Well, first of all, he probably woke up in the night a few times himself– I’m awfully sorry for his disrupted sleep, but it’s obvious he knew the good side of that disruption: that falling down of barriers and exploding sense of possibilities. Some people pay a lot of money for terrible substances to get that feeling; others suffer from insomnia. (In case it’s not clear, I fall in the latter camp, not the former.) And he gets that sense of exploded barriers across by blasting through all barriers of storytelling. Let’s consider a few simple aspects.
First, there’s format. What’s the format for this book? You in the back? That’s right! There’s no clear answer. Is it a comic book or graphic novel? (Graphic story, I guess?) Well, sort of. Is it a picture book? Sort of. It’s really what you get when you peel away the outer layers of each and let the ink from each seep together. The picture book is still there. The word balloons and panels are still there. But it’s sort of a picture book where the pictures speak as much as the words and the words play a powerful part in the pictures and the panel layout really matters. It’s a merger of formats, where the form powerfully informs the storytelling. I have never seen a book where the form has done so much, or where the form’s beauty has been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. (Sorry, I couldn’t help it. Ten points if you get the reference, and a further ten points if you don’t smack me upside the head for it. Also, I meant exactly what I said there.)
Let’s take a look inside the book. As with How to Be a Dog, I’m snapping a few pictures for you because I think it’s important to look at what we’re talking about. (I would like to thank the Samsung Galaxy S7 for making it possible for me to easily take and upload a not-t00-crappy picture to my blog.)
What do we notice? Well, it looks nearly conventional until that last panel. A bar at the top, perhaps bigger than we might be used to from DC or Marvel, gives context, and the picture illustrates what’s happening. That last panel, though, explodes the barriers– quite literally breaking the space for the last image and overwhelming it with Mickey’s shout. But what about another one?
Now, this is interesting. First, I want to note that the page layout is bigger. Everything is bigger, somehow, except for a few things which are short and squat (the baking soda) or tall and thin (the orange flower water). The sense of scale is topsy-turvy with the huge bakers, a huge bowl, a big table with ordinary ingredients underneath, dwarfed by the big spoons. Mickey, of course, is disappearing in the bowl, one little hand poking up on the right. There’s something Alice in Wonderland-like about the scale here, and pretty much as disturbing. And yet there are conventional elements, too: incorporating the text into the table is original, but still works with the traditional structure of balancing text and speech bubbles, which appear on the right in the expected format.
Let’s look at a last page, one of the most famous:
First, let’s note that the Changeling firmly believes there’s an owl in this picture. Whoever finds the owl gets a prize. Onto the in-depth, serious analysis. First of all, there are no words at all. The picture here is speaking for itself. Now, this isn’t totally original (if you want to see my favourite example of a wordless book see Escapade by John S. Goodall), but in this case what I love about it is that we see how our panels have exploded away. We’ve left behind order, or even the semblance of order. The bakers are exulting, expectant, waiting on tenterhooks, and Mickey has flown right out of bed, out of the oven, and is soon to abandon even the dough. Gone, all restrictions are going to be gone, and he’ll be left crowing Cock-a-doodle-doo stark naked except for a measuring cup on his head as he balances on the top of the milk bottle.
This is only something you can think up waking in the night. No matter how late you stay up, it won’t come to you: you have to burst through onto the other side of sleep to get there.
And it’s all domestic. All of it. It’s cozy, comforting, and utterly discombobulating and perverse at the same time. It’s Maurice Sendak.