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Thursday, 14 June 2012

Outside Over There: "But never watched"

Outside Over There de Maurice Sendak
The Bodley Head, 1981
Our edition: Red Fox (Random House), 2002

Since my wide-eyed, somewhat uncertain reaction to Outside Over There the first time I read it, ten months have gone by and it has become one of our unquestionable favourites. This I owe mainly to Sendak, who is a master of books that grow with each reading, but also to a great extent to my son, who made me see clearer than ever before, that adult fears about what might make children afraid are usually based on... adult fears. 

Outside Over There is a perfect combination of two melodies, one image-based and the other language-based, interwoven to suggest an abundance of meanings brimming with an almost lavish ambiguity. It's magic and the result is hypnotic for children and adults alike. 

The story
Ida, an 8-10 year old girl, has to look after her baby sister while her father is away at sea and her mother sits there waiting, her eyes lost somewhere in the horizon, just as absent as he is. "When Papa was away at sea and Mama in the arbor, Ida played her wonder horn to rock the baby still -but never watched". When some goblins take advantage of Ida's inattention and force their way in through the window to kidnap baby, Ida must face up to her responsibility, and she does so bravely, venturing out to rescue her sister. But she makes "a serious mistake", and "climbs backwards out her window into outside over there". With the help of a song her father sends her from the distant ocean, she manages to "tumble right side round" and enter the caves of the goblins, "just babies like her sister", disarm them with the melody of her wonder horn, find her sister from out of all the babies there and take her back to the safety of their home, where their mother is waiting for them with a letter from their father asking Ida to look after her mother and her sister until he returns. "Which is just what Ida did".

Sendak takes many traditional fairytale elements and plays with them to portray the ambivalent feelings of an older sister towards her baby sister, her internal search to identify and control her emotions and the maturing of her love towards her sister and family.

It broaches responsibility (together with fear of failure), braveness and survival in an often incomprehensible world, portrayed from the child's very incomprehension of their emotions and from their own process of learning, adapting  and fitting in with other people and other elements in the world. 

The text of Outside Over There, which Maurice Sendak said he revised more than one hundred times, is poetically hypnotic, with each word and each sound carefully and purposefully chosen to incorporate all the ambiguity and generate all the clash of feelings that it intends to, combining almost musically with the images. 

The illustrations

Outside Over There came after Sendak illustrated the Grimm tales, for which he went on a trip to Germany, where he fell in love with the German romantics, "passionately", in his own words. And with that sense of humour of his he explains that "Outside Over There is like a bad Runge painting". 

These are some of the images we find most fascinating from Outside Over There. 

Possibly the most impressive image in the book, with the goblins taking the baby and leaving in its stead another made of ice.
"So the goblins came"

Here we see Ida, preparing to rescue her sister. Look at the sunflowers, and how they have grown gradually from illustration to illustration, slowly and menacingly invading the room. Like in Where the Wild Things Are, the vegetation grows with the intensity of the fantasy, except that in Max's room it grow outwards, whereas here it comes from outside to penetrate the interior of the "safe" home.  
They stole my sister away! 

Ida making the "serious mistake" of climbing "backwards out her window into outside over there".

Ida with her wonder horn, trying to drive the goblins away: 
"Ida played a frenzied jig"

On their way home. Could that tree be standing in wait for them? No, it just looks like it might be.
"Ida glad hugged baby tight"

The illustrations in Outside Over There are so full of detail, symbols, reference and allusions that I do not know if they ever end. Every time I open it, I find something new.

We can analyse what we see out of the window of the room where Ida and the baby are. At the start we see some trees against a peaceful afternoon sky. When they take the baby, the trees are still there, but the sky has gone dark. When they have already taken the baby but Ida has not yet realised, the trees have disappeared and we see a view of a boat on a sea just starting to stir. By the time Ida realises what has happened, the sea is in full roar and the ship has sunk. Ida ventures out right in the middle of the storm to rescue her sister and by the time she saves her, the sky is calm again, almost morning.

We can count sheep and shepherds that appear occasionally as pastoral motifs. We can stop and look at a little house and spot Mozart playing the piano. We can spend time having a good look at those huge feet Sendak likes to give many of his characters. We can delight in the details of the landscape, the trees, the water, the ivy, the folds of the cloaks and capes and the looks on faces. But we can also stand back a little, see the full picture and let the images evoke all the complexity of feelings they generate in us and enjoy it.

My son was visually attracted to Outside Over There from the word go and this attraction has only increased over time.

Reading out loud
The first time you read Outside Over There it might strike you as somewhat odd. It is not easy to find the rhythm and cadence immediately. It sometimes seems to stop when it should continue and continue when it should stop, it plays constantly with your ear's expectations (if you expect a rhyme it never comes when you think it should, but when you least expect it, a bit after, a bit before or never). However, the more you read it and the more you make it yours, it is precisely those parts that were frustrating or odd the first times that strike you as so exceptionally beautiful and poetically forceful. 

Sendak stretches sentences mercilessly. As someone reading out loud, he loses you for just a second and then takes you by the hand and returns you to your place gently, without you realising. The experience of reading it out loud is almost as if you were sent along an unknown path and on the way were provided with the tools required so as not to get lost. 

I perceive this subjective experience as a reader mirrored in my most faithful listener. From the first sentence, he is entirely captivated by the story. It's funny but my son rarely interrupts me when I'm reading this book, as he does with many others. If we look at the details in the illustrations it is normally after we read it in full, as if he needed to go over the content for the experience to be complete.  

There is a whispered sentence, a cry of fear, a rhymed song, several exclamations and finally the father's letter that serve to break the rhythm and keep the attention of listeners at all times.

Outside Over There is a very special book for reading out loud.

More on Outside Over There 
Outside Over There is the third book of what the late Maurice Sendak considered to be a trilogy on "how children master various feelings - danger, boredom, fear, frustration, jealousy - and manage to come to grips with the realities of their lives.'' The other two books that make up the trilogy are Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen

Although the three books are visually very different, they are all fantasies where a child has an adventure in which they must face and overcome a series of never explicitly revealed obstacles before returning to the comfort of their home (or bed, or hot soup as the case may be). 

Where the Wild Things was initially received with a degree of apprehension due to the perception that those monsters might be too frightening for children or because Max's "naughty" behaviour was not condemned. In the Night Kitchen suffered mutilations and badly drawn-on modesty nappies by nasty-minded, twisted and dim librarians and school staff. Of all three of them, however, Outside Over There is possibly the book that has caused the greatest feelings of unease, concern and fear about its appropriateness for children. 

I must confess that the first time I read it, apart from the strangeness of the text, I was rather impressed by the whole book and something happened to me that I had never experienced before with a children's book. I asked myself whether I really wanted to read it to my son, who was then about two and a half years old. On the one hand, I may have thought he was too young to be interested, but I also think I asked myself whether it was "appropriate". I have never felt that kind of instinctive apprehension about a book before. And for one moment, I put it to one side. But that very afternoon, my son saw it, picked it up and brought it to me for me to read it to him. I decided to try it out. And I was taken aback by how much he liked it at once. He asked me to read it again and again and, almost a year later, he continues to do so. It is a book he is very much attracted to, almost hypnotically so. 

Why does this book awaken such unease among parents and adults in general? Even among parents and adults predisposed to feeling and thinking otherwise? Undoubtedly the illustrations and the text evoke so many things and such ambiguous things that it touches very uncomfortable areas of our adult unconscious mind. 

But I think it is likely that getting stuck on those things it touches for adults is to focus on the superficial. As Sendak himself once said, "It's only adults who read the top layers most of the time. I think children read the internal meanings of everything" (The Art of Maurice Sendak, by Selma Lanes). And here the internal meanings are much more about the ambivalent feelings of the big sister towards her baby sister. The book is about love, responsibility (a source of fear and pride in equal measure) and heroism. It is about coming to grips with the complexity of love towards your siblings and family in a world full of confusion. It is about the terrible feeling of having a responsibility and failing or making a mistake. But it is also about learning to cope with your mistakes and set them right. I think this reaches children in an intuitive way. 

Sendak does not tell us what the child feels; he makes us react to them. He doesn't become the voice of the child; he invites us to look and feel; both through identification and observation. Depending on the age, when reading Outside Over There children may feel admiration towards Ida. How brave, what a hero! Perhaps they'd also wish for a yellow cloak like that or fantasise about having a baby sister. They may also have a feeling of enjoyable fear, the kind where you cover up your eyes but peek out through your fingers because you can't help looking. My son gets very angry with the goblins when they take the baby and says he's going to hit them with a big stick if he sees them (recently his big imaginary stick is going to solve all the world's ills). He also gets angry with the fraudulent ice baby. But he loves to see that Ida has found her sister at last and how she takes her home.  

Adults however, might spend the book worrying about any possible sexual connotations of Ida portrayed a bit like Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, about the mention of the baby being a "goblin's bride", about the ambiguity of the expression “rock the baby still”. Why not just "rock the baby to sleep"?

What is wonderful about Sendak is that he never scolds or lectures the child (except as a joke, in Pierre, for example). But he doesn't scold or lecture the adult who reads it out loud either (an increasingly popular line in picture books). He always focuses on the child's internal process as something they must (and can) resolve by themselves. He also always bears in mind that childhood is a very confusing time, even if you have a united, loving family. That no excuses or justifications are needed to explain why a child may feel miserable, confused or resentful. That what is interesting is that it is very likely that all children feel these things at some point, because it is part of their emotional and personal development. And what is interesting is for the child to realise that it is in their power to learn to understand, express and control or let out their emotions and feelings. Perhaps that is why his books are ultimately so comforting and empowering for children.   

I shall finish with a quote from Sendak about Outside Over There: 

"It was the story of me and my sister, basically. She’s Ida and her vexation, if not rage, in having to take care of me. To insinuate that as part of a relationship in a book for children is hard for critics because there’s a misconception of what is a children’s book and what it should contain and should not contain and what the subject matter should be and should not be. And primarily it is to be healthy and funny and clever and up-beat and not show the little tattered edges of what life was like. But I remembered what life was like and I didn’t know what else to write about." 

Jim Henson's film Labyrinth was inspired by Outside Over There (Where the Wild Things Are and Outside Over There actually appear on a shelf at one point in the film, and Jim Henson acknowledges his debt to the works of Maurice Sendak in the credits. 

(c) of the illustrations, Maurice Sendak, 1981.
(c) of the text, Ellen Duthie, 2012. By all means copy it or reproduce it but please be nice and cite your source (author and blog).

Other reviews, readings and pieces on Maurice Sendak at We Read it Like This:

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