Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Eros in the Night Kitchen

In the last entry in this series on things that are unexpectedly sexy, I discussed a Muppet movie. Well, like Benjamin Button, my subjects keep getting younger. This one's about a classic children's book.

Maurice Sendak picture books were a part of my childhood. There are two I remember well. One was Where The Wild Things Are, with its beautiful monsters done in ink and tempera. The ending made a big impression on me: after sailing back "over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day," Max returned to his own room, where his supper was waiting for him, "and it was still hot." It didn't matter that I knew this to be impossible. When you're a child, you don't question things like that. You accept, and feel awe.

In The Night Kitchen impressed me in a different way. Right from the start, it was a more sensual experience. I remember the way the book smelled. It had a strong smell that was unlike other books, whether because it was newer or printed on a different type of paper, I don't know, but I liked it. The smell seemed right for a book involving dough, milk and nudity.

A little boy named Mickey falls out of his bed and pyjamas and into the Night Kitchen, where he gets mistaken for milk and mixed into cake batter by a trio of cooks who look like Oliver Hardy (my thanks to James for pointing this out). He makes his escape in an airplane made of bread dough, but the cooks still want milk to put in their cake. Happy to help, Mickey flies to a giant bottle of milk (the Milky Way), immerses himself in it and swims out with a cupful of milk. Mission accomplished, he slides down the side of the giant milk bottle and back into his bed.

It's all very tactile. Mickey experiences air, cake batter and milk on his skin. This is not a genitally-focused, adult sexuality but a whole-body sensuality. Still, that doesn't mean there is nothing sexual about it. I distinctly remember being turned on as a child when the bakers obliviously cracked eggs and poured sugar over Mickey and mixed him into the batter. It is probably this childish sexuality, so well captured by Maurice Sendak, that has initiated so many spasms of prudery. In the Night Kitchen has been making the ALA's most frequently challenged/banned lists for years. Librarians have been known to vandalize the book by painting a diaper on Mickey (source: Time Magazine, Dec. 29, 1980).

They need to get over it. Children are sexual, something Freud was well aware of back in the Victorian Era. It should not need to be said that this does not make it acceptable for adults to exploit them sexually. Children have the right to their sexuality and to explore it, on their own or with other children, without interference or abuse from adults. In that regard, a book like this might even be helpful.

If you think it's inappropriate for a children's book to contain anything erotic, even the innocent sort of eroticism of In the Night Kitchen, consider that Eros, the Greek God of Love, is also called Cupid and is depicted as a naked boy or baby with wings. Trade those wings for a dough airplane and he could be Mickey.

Serendipitously, Freedom to Read Week is coming soon. The displays are already up at my local library and perhaps yours too. Support freedom of expression. Read a banned book this February.

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