In this #DadsRead tribute, Steve Edwards tells the story of how Maurice Sendak’s “In the Night Kitchen” opened his eyes to how the simple act of reading can be educational for both parents AND children.
We took one carload to the donation center yesterday, and this morning I took the last of it—our son’s baby toys and accouterments. I’m still kind of stunned at how much stuff we accumulated in just four short years (especially since I’d vowed to not be one of those parents drowning in things). But there it all was in the trunk of my car: sacks of alphabet blocks and Lincoln logs, a car seat he’s outgrown, a stroller, one of those wooden potty chairs with the hole cut out. All kinds of stuff.
Any parent who has done this kind of cleaning out will tell you: it’s bittersweet. You are glad to be making some space in the basement and starting a new chapter in life, but it plain hurts to let go of the past.
The adjustment to having a baby in the house is so intense. I mean, a helpless little baby will put you through your paces. Sleep deprivation, trips to the doctor, the fact that, like you, babies get hungry, angsty, sick… it’s such an intense time and, while I can’t speak for other dads, I’ll say for me, I still feel hyper-vigilant about my son’s care. And as crazy as it might sound it feels weird to be donating his old things because part of me—some small, vulnerable part—hasn’t yet accepted the fact that he’s no longer a baby. I don’t mean that I still try to bottle feed him, and I’m glad as hell he’s potty-trained. I’m talking about on some psychic level. The experience so fundamentally transformed me, I’ve got some rediscovering of myself to do. Who am I now?
So getting rid of some of the stuff he no longer needs—it’s for the best, all around. The one thing from that time in his life that I will never part with, however, are his books.
I don’t care how ragged, torn, moldy, decrepit his library gets, those books stay. I should explain. This isn’t hoarderism, and it’s not because I love all of the stories. Some of them, my god—are some of you children’s book authors trying to melt my brain? No, the books stay because, bad or good, they saved us. A thousand times over they saved us. As I have written about here and elsewhere, our son had a tough time of things with an undiagnosed gastrointestinal issue that often left him a shrieking mess in chronic pain. He didn’t sleep the night until he was three, and it was impossible for my wife and me to comfort him. Books were our lifelines. They still are really. The colors and pictures, the rhythms of the words, the sensory experience of touching and turning the pages—these bits of mental and physical stimulation give him something outside of his pain to focus on.
Of all his beat up and battered books, the one I hold dearest will always be In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak. For the uninitiated, I’ll just say this: I don’t know. I don’t know how to even begin to tell you about this book. I don’t know why a young boy named Mickey falls out of his clothes—like, all the way out so that he’s buck naked through the whole story—and I don’t know who the giant Hitler-mustached bakers are who stir him into a big bowl of dough, and I don’t know how Mickey gets the idea to beat the dough into an airplane that he can fly through the strangely city-looking night kitchen with its building-sized glass of milk for the morning cake. I don’t know. You have to read the story for yourself, come to your own understanding.
What I can say about the story is this: more than any other book, it taught me that I was wrong about reading.
Before our son was born, and before we had to start dealing with the intensity of his problems, I thought that reading to your kid was how you invited that kid to share in the world with you. See, kid, let me show you this. Let me teach you that. This is the world, and this is how the world works. And okay, maybe that’s part of the deal. There’s a real satisfaction in showing a kid a bit of magic.
But here’s what I mean when I say I was wrong about reading. In thinking that kids’ books were just about educating the child, I completely overlooked that as a parent I, too, needed educating. In the way it abandons logic and rationality, a book like In the Night Kitchen dives straight into the heart of childhood and how children experience the world. I mean, how insane must the world seem to children? Just try explaining to a child why he or she needs to wash his or her hands. There are these invisible things called germs that could get you sick. No, you can’t see them, they’re invisible. Yes, I know they’re there. They’re there because I say so. Go wash your hands.
For me the story of Mickey in the night kitchen became a talisman. As I read along, I heard a little voice saying, “Remember? Remember what it’s like to be small and at the mercy of so many big, big things?”
And I remembered—I remembered the wonder of my own earliest days. Just like that the story made sense.
And the story also helped me understand the chaos of my son’s health challenges. Not all narratives are logical. Not all narratives have a moral or a lesson. Some you simply have to hold onto your ass and experience. Which is the narrative my wife and son and I lived in our darkest hours.
The wild, reckless, and intuitive inventiveness of childhood that Sendak captures so effortlessly in In the Night Kitchen—it’s a precious commodity, and like a stroller or a car seat it can be outgrown and abandoned. Or donated. When I read to my son, I’m not just imparting information about the world to him in story form. I’m learning and remembering how to be a kid myself. I’m celebrating and (hopefully) modeling for him what it means to be a good person. A good man. When we sing, Milk in the batter! Milk in the batter! We bake cake and nothing’s the matter!, we acknowledge one another in a fundamentally human way: by taking pleasure in each other’s voice and presence. Come what may with his health issues or with the fact that he’ll some day grow up, when we read and sing together, we are together. That’s the story that matters.