The Maurice Sendak Trilogy: In Which Networks Grow Up

The most famous Maurice Sendak book was written as the middle of a trilogy, representing the psychological development of children from toddlers in In the Night Kitchen to preschoolers in Where the Wild Things Are to pre-adolescents in Outside Over There. Each book adheres to the form of a portal fantasy, where the protagonists start in a recognizably realistic world, which I call “Here,” and move to a non-realistic one, “There,” before returning to Here. The title of each is the location of the There: a night kitchen where bakers are making a morning cake, an island of Wild Things to tame and ultimately leave, and, finally, the goblin lair where a stolen baby sister waits after having been exchanged for a changeling.

This is In the Night Kitchen:

The arrows (rather than lines) from Mickey to his parents represent an incomplete or unilateral edge and come from this panel, where Mickey speaks but is not heard:

Here is Where the Wild Things Are:

The starkest difference is, of course, the simplicity of the preschooler network over the toddler one. This derives from how the There characters talk: the Wild Things operate as one while the Bakers talk both collectively and individually. This gives Max increased centrality over Mickey. Without Max, there would be no network at all. A centrality buttressed by Max’s more effective communication: everyone who Max speaks to hears him, whereas Mickey is only heard in the There. This makes sense for different kinds of fantasy: a dream (starting in bed, at night) in In The Night Kitchen and a day dream (starting upright, at suppertime) in Where the Wild Things Are.

One shared component though: the function of the protagonists in the network vis-à-vis the other characters is identical to the function of the portal vis-à-vis the space of the story. Mickey and Max are the gatekeepers between the closed character systems of Here and There, which have borders shut to all save them, reinforcing an interpretation of a strictly internal fantasy world.
In Outside Over There, fantasy comes home:

The border is porous for more than just the protagonist, now. The characters from There (the Changeling, the Goblins) are spoken to on both sides, while Here characters (Sailor Papa, Baby Sister) are listened to in the There. Ida’s first communication in the There is with her father, whose song provides instructions for rescuing her little sister. Her last communication in the There, and, in fact, the book, is listening to the wordless crooning of her sister. This creates a kind of bookend between the first communication in the trilogy where a toddler, Mickey, speaks but is not heard in the Here, and the last communication in Outside Over There, where a toddler speaks and is heard in the There.

Outside Over There combines the There trio of In the Night Kitchen with the protagonist centrality of Where the Wild Things Are, a hybrid pattern that makes a richer network which still can’t exist without the protagonist. It’s often said that there is beauty in symmetry. But sometimes, as here, there is more beauty in its absense. Mickey learns to question power, to not listen:

Max questions power by testing its reasons, as if he were its source:

Finally, Ida, the oldest and the only girl, is not challenging or experimenting with power, but occupying an actual position of it in relation to her little sister, a responsibility heightened by her father’s absence at sea (and her mother’s potential emotional one). Questions of power are apparent on the face of the books. What I get from looking at the small maps of the relationships is an added nuance.

Growing up, in the networks, means being able to hear your demons anywhere. No longer confined to dreams or fantasies—they exist wherever you are. And far worse is that they often take the people you love. This is a devastating truth that the last book brings front and center:

It is not, however, the truth the book rests on. Brave, bright Ida escapes outside over there with her little sister by listening, both to someone who takes care of her and to someone she takes care of. Goblins, Wild Things, Adults—all wield a kind of power in the trilogy. But the truth the trilogy rests on is what makes someone deserve power: when you make rules that make sense, when you keep supper warm after a fight, and above all, when you hear those you have power over.

Social Network Sunday features books made into networks. Characters become nodes connected by specific interactions, which, here, is direct speech; a line between characters is called an edge. How many edges a character has indicates her importance to the stability of the network, a structural centrality that doesn’t always match thematic centrality. The purpose of this feature is less interpretation than experimentation. For more on method, please see the first essay in this series .

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