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March 1, 2010

Freedom to Read Week: Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak

I wasn’t planning to observe Freedom To Read Week, but my Toronto Public Library local branch (big ups the Spadina Road massive!) made it particularly easy, with a display table sent up prominently by the check-out. I grabbed Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak, because I knew I’d have time to get through it, and also because I’d never heard of it before.

Now, here’s my confession: I’m not crazy about Where the Wild Things Are. It’s kind of cute, the boy in the wolf-suit, but overwhelmingly benign. (I have not read the Dave Eggers novel, but I’m going to. I have heard many good things about it, and perhaps it might open my mind to the Wild Things‘ depths?). Perhaps part of it is the playfulness of Sendak’s illustrations, as compared to Outside Over There whose pictures are positively sinister.

Apparently Sendak saw Outside Over There as the conclusion to a trilogy with Where the Wild Things Are and The Night Kitchen. (I don’t remember The Night Kitchen. I suspect this should be remedied). These three books, said Sendak, “‘are all variations on the same theme: how children master various feelings – danger, boredom, fear, frustration, jealousy – and manage to come to grips with the realities of their lives.”

So I read Outside Over There, and my immediate reaction was, “Ban the thing! Think of the children! The children!” Or at least I could see how one might jump to that response, because the book is utterly mystifying. The pictures are really frightening, the text is weird and jumbled, the story doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and the whole book is troubling, in the way that so much about it is just not quite right, but exactly why remains elusive. I could not imagine wanting to read this book to a child, I could not imagine wanting this book to be read to me as a child (because truth be told, I always steered pretty clear of anything about goblins).

But on the other hand, if I could have got past the goblins, I could see how these would be pictures to get lost in. The baby is also a terrifically-drawn baby, who is screaming on one page and looks exactly like my daughter. Ida, the girl in the story, is the only illustrated little girl I’ve ever seen who looks like Virginia Woolf. And in the background of the pictures, strange scenes are set that aren’t explained and we’re left to wonder. To wonder too about the story, about Ida who is left to look after her sister while her father is at sea and her mother is (we assume) depressive. “Ida played her wonder horn to rock the baby still– but never watched.” So that the baby is kidnapped by goblins, Ida has to rescue her but makes “a serious mistake” that is never explained. She finds the goblins, all of whom have been transformed into fat babies. Ida only frees her sister by playing a song on her horn that turns the goblin-babies into a dancing stream but left her sister, “cozy in an eggshell, crooning and clapping as a baby should.” She returns home and makes a promise to always watch her sister and her mother, for her father, who “will be home one day.”

Weird weird weird. And how amazing is a picture book that pulls its readers so deep inside it but leaves them only mystified? A story that can’t be tied up neatly, or even properly understood, and must be returned to and considered, and flipped through again and again. Which isn’t to say that the book is necessarily good, or remotely satisfying, but there is something to it, surely. If I could only just begin to put my finger on what it is…

This 1981 NY Times Review of Outside Over There suggests the book has depths I’ve not begun to plumb– complex themes, sexual connotations, that “Mr. Sendak’s illustrations are evocative in so many different ways that for a self-conscious adult mind to enter the world of Outside Over There is to risk becoming paralyzed by the book’s allusiveness.”

According to this resource on challenged books, Outside Over There has been challenged, surprisingly, not for being maddeningly weird, but for references to “nudity, religion and witchcraft.” None of which I’d picked up on– is it possible my mind isn’t sick enough for this sort of thing? I think only the babies are nude, but are not babies often nude? (And now that I’ve started reading objections to banned books, I can’t quite quit. The Lorax “for criminalizing the forestry industry.” Murmel Murmel Murmel for “depict[ing] human reproduction”. And it would be so funny, if it weren’t actually true.

I am so glad that there exist children’s books that are so puzzling and complex and you’re never finished reading them. How much credit does that accord children’s minds, I think, and it’s brilliant. Even if the book troubles me in its vague, weird way– that kind of a reaction from pictures and a couple hundred words of text is really quite remarkable. And I’m even glad that someone wanted to ban this one, because otherwise, I might not ever have read it.

11 thoughts on “Freedom to Read Week: Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak”

  1. Mr. B says:

    When you’re checking out The Night Kitchen, also take a look at We’re All In The Dumps With Jack and Guy, one of my favourites. Great commentary on child poverty around the world.

  2. m says:

    I have never heard of this book, either! I’ll have to check it out.

    In the Night Kitchen is a favourite in our home. We don’t own it, but take it out from the library every few months renewing it as long as we can.

  3. Anna says:

    I used to have this book when I was really little and I loved it. I had it before I could read but I remember being 3 or 4 and looking at the pictures all the time and my mom thought it would scare me so she threw it away. But I always liked creepy things.

  4. Jabberwocky says:

    This book… Wow. I can hardly describe how it affected me as a child. “Scared” isn’t the right word. “traumatized” is more like it. For several years (probably ages 5 to 7 or so) I was absolutely terrified of being kidnapped (always through my window in the dead of night), and I’ve often wondered where that fear originated. I think it may have begun with this.

    I hadn’t thought about this book in years, until today I saw the Polar Express was on the TV. I remembered thinking about reading that book, and how the cover resembled this other creepy book that scared me to death and sometimes I’d pick it up by mistake. But that’s all I remembered about it, and so I looked up “picture book baby stolen goblins” on the almighty Google. And immediately “Outside and Over There” popped into the suggestions.

    Man… These illustrations are the stuff of nightmares. Especially the scene with the goblins stealing the baby and leaving the weird ice doll thing in its place. Now, I know that all kids are different, but this book should definitely be brought into a house with caution. If my mom had read it to me, it would have been one thing, sitting beside her and watching as she turned the pages. But I read this one on my own at night. Brr… I’d stuff it under my bed and pretend it didn’t exist, but just the KNOWLEDGE that it was in my room scared me.

    Another thing I found whilst reading about this odd story was on the Wikipedia article about it. Apparently, a movie called Labyrinth was based on this book, which brought on another rush of memories about this creepy MOVIE about a baby getting kidnapped that terrified me as a kid… Who knew they were related? xD It’s weird, I hadn’t thought about that in years, either!

    So, to conclude, I have nothing to conclude. I’m not really sure what to think about this book. It horrified me and plagued my nightmares when I was very young, but… Well, I know some people are huge fans of it, and it’s making me look at it differently.
    But whatever.
    I’m going to go get my brownies out of the oven.

    1. Kerry says:

      Mmm. Brownies. And I think it’s a book that should draw no conclusions. It’s weird and I’m not always sure I like it as much as I think I do. I still don’t understand it at all either. But I think a book with such ambiguity is a useful thing for a child, acknowleding that not all questions have answers. Or maybe I am just traumatizing my daughter. Who knows? We’ll see!

  5. Peter says:

    The genius of Outside Over There is that it does, indeed, work on so many levels at once. I’ve been thinking about this book for a year now, since I read it to my daughter after her 1st birthday, and I have come to view it as working on two levels.

    1.) the “Hero’s Journey”: (see joseph Campbell) It’s the story about how a little girl moves from selfish, self-interested motives to a more community/family-oriented set of motives. She doesn’t want to take care of her sister while her mother is a basket-case in the arbor, goes through some trials and tribulations, wins the day, and, finally, comes to terms with her role in her family.

    2.) It’s the myth about the daughter of a vegetation goddess (like Demeter/Ceres) and a sea god descending into the underworld to rescue the youth, represented by the little sister, from the forces of “evil” who would pervert it for their own desires. This second reading I support by pointing to the way the mother refuses to leave the arbor. WHen Ida is playing her wonder-horn, she is playing to a window full of flowers and plants suggesting a vain attempt to interest the mother. When she gets mad, the picture of the sea behind her on the wall changes from a calm scene to one filled with storm. Also, her father is able to send her helpful information about how to deal with the goblins (how does he know that unless he is supernatural somehow himself?) from way away at sea.

    I wouldn’t say that these are hard and fast interpretations, but I do assert that these themes are definitely there within the text and images.

    I argue that children need this kind of story, like the original Grimm’s fairy tales, with their weirdness, violence, and horror, in order to learn to deal with the weirdness, violence, and horror that they will inevitably encounter in life. Sheltering them until some magic point when they are “ready” makes no sense. When is anyone “ready” to come to grips with the horror that even a “normal” life can be full of?

    1. Kerry says:

      Peter, thanks for your comment which illuminates the book so much for me. And I agree with your final paragraph very much. Books like Outside Over There are so important.

  6. Anne says:

    This has been my favorite Maurice Sendak book, and one of my favorite picture books, period, since as far back as I can remember. I feel the need to speak up as someone who read it as a child — who, in fact, had it read *to* me, before I could read — and who was not scared of it and loved it, unconditionally. It spoke to me on a really deep level, one which, contrary to your experience, actually comforted and encouraged me.

    Papa is away at sea, so the women are left all alone (Mama, Ida, and the baby sister). This is an iconic experience for any child; on the most basic level, one parent is gone, at work, and the child has a sense of uncertainty about when and if that parent will return. Mama’s both sad, and trying to get Ida to help share her responsibilities. Ida wants to entertain herself, not watch her baby sister.

    (I had a sister two years younger than I was, who may have been 2 or 3 when I was first read this book. I also happened to look rather a lot like Ida, with long brown hair in ponytails. Yeah.)

    She plays her wonder horn, and *thinks* she has everything under control. But the goblins steal her baby sister (something I went on to read about in many fairy tales; fairies leaving changeling children and so on), while she’s not paying attention. I LOVED that the room, the whole *world,* around Ida reflected her moods — that when she was content, the ship in the painting was calm and the flowers bright and happy, but as things slipped from her control, and she was shocked, then angry, the ship in the painting sank in a storm, and the flowers went wild, growing into the room past the window frame.

    She prepared to go save her baby sister. I also loved her reaction, it was so real — she didn’t want to mind the baby, but the *instant* the baby was in any real danger, she was an avenging firestorm, ready to save her sister at any cost. She put on her mother’s raincoat, which to me felt like taking some of her mother’s strength with her — a raincoat is a literal protection from the wild natural world, and maybe mystically she knows it will protect her with her mother’s love. (I saw shades of this later in other fairy tales like The Goose Girl, where the mother entrusts a cloth with three drops of blood on it to her daughter, and that is the source of the girl’s ability to defend herself; when the cloth is lost, she essentially loses her voice and her pride.)

    She also takes her wonder horn. It isn’t *blamed* for the baby’s kidnapping — Ida was distracted by it, but it’s also hers, her personal talent and joy, and she’ll need her own skills to save her sister.

    But then, she makes a terrible mistake: she climbs backwards out the window into Outside Over There. I always thought the mistake was climbing out the window backwards, which was the magical key to entering this other world; that maybe she could have taken another route, or asked her mother for help, but she just entered the dangerous realm backwards, off-balance and unprepared.

    To me, one of the most important moments in the story was when she thought she heard her father’s voice from far at sea, giving her aid: “If Ida backwards in the rain / Would only turn around again / And catch those goblins with a tune / She’d spoil their kidnap honeymoon.” It was a powerful statement that even with a parent far away, out of sight and *real* hearing, you could still ‘hear’ their wisdom and benefit from it. I really felt the strength of that idea, even at 5 years old!

    So, she plays her wonder horn, forcing the goblins to dance a frenzied jig until they churn themselves into a stream and flow out of the cave — which, to me, was not scary but perfectly fair, as they’d stolen the baby sister, and also because anything that couldn’t dance or else it would cease to exist as a person wasn’t really a person to begin with. The only part of the story that puzzled me, when I was little, was the eggshell — why was the baby sister snug in an eggshell? I think it made sense to me that she would be safe and secure in an eggshell, and that an egg hatching was a sort of sign of a new beginning, but I was bothered that the egg was so BIG. Where did the goblins get an eggshell that big to keep their stolen baby in? (But then, I’m not familiar with the fauna of Outside Over There!)

    And, at the end, she returns home with the baby sister (I love one shot of their journey home, where Mozart — okay, some guy in a wig at a piano and I’m just SURE it’s Mozart — can be glimpsed through an open window in the background), to find Mama in possession of a note from Papa, with his wishes for her to take care of Mama and the baby until he comes home again, and that’s just what Ida did. So, Mama didn’t even notice the goblins or the missing baby, but Ida solved it all on her own — to me, it reflects something of the inner nature of sibling relationships and just personal growth; that children undergo these scary, monumental, life-changing internal journeys, and there may be no outward sign that anything of importance has happened.

    1. Kerry says:

      I love this. How much illumination comes when we share our books. Thank you!

  7. Anne says:

    And thank YOU — now that I’ve found your blog (while searching for tributes to Sendak in the aftermath of his death), I’m looking forward to reading more of your picture book reviews — and to getting some ideas for new books to read, too!

  8. Allison says:

    I grew up reading Outside Over There, and it was one of my favorite books. I loved the pics and the text. I have a love of the quietly creepy and enjoyed the imperfect character of Ida. I always felt the “serious mistake” was her going backwards out the window, because she turned and missed her sister. I love. Love. This book.

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