Showing posts with label Outside Over There. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Outside Over There. Show all posts

5.12.2012

Outside Over There (1981)

Written and Illustrated by Maurice Sendak

Harper Collins



Well, as everyone knows, Maurice Sendak is no more - at least in physical form. Two years ago I wrote a column for The Critical Masses about three Sendak books which are - perhaps - not as well known as some of his others. I thought I would reproduce them here, one at a time, beginning with one of my absolute favorite picture books of all time, Outside Over There (1981).

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Outside Over There has a lot in common with a certain major cult film of yesteryear. It was in the back of my mind the first time I read it, years ago: I know this story. I’ve read this before. (This is a very common thought to have while reading children’s literature).
The elements of the book are these:
A young girl, Ida by name, forced to tend her unwanted and unwelcome baby sister.
The goblins, who sneak in through the rear window, carting off with baby sister and leaving – in her place – a changeling made of ice, melting slowly and hideously.
Armed only with her Mama’s yellow rain cloak and a golden hornpipe, Ida must find and retrieve said baby sister before the young one is married off in a wretched goblin ceremony.
Outside Over There was published a full five years before the Jim Henson film, Labyrinth. There are no shifting corridors in the Sendak tale, no immersive M.C. Escher environments, no pop singers in fright wigs and spandex, but the two share both plot-points and also tone.
In neither is there the usual grappling with the fantastic, but rather a matter-of-fact acceptance which somehow makes it all the more appalling. Ida, gripping the dripping remains of her sister’s changeling, immediately knows the score. She seems to have a pre-cognition of the rules of the game. Yes, the goblins came and will marry her sister off. Yes, the hornpipe must be blown. These are not presented as fantastic elements, but a part of the very real world which Ida seems to be inexplicably aware. Normally, we expect to identify with the main character, but when we realize that Ida knows more about this world than we do, she suddenly becomes as mysterious and other as the goblins themselves.
Is that too much? Have I overstated the case?
When I showed the book to Arlo, he immediately balked. “That looks dumb,” is how he put it.
I didn’t blame him. The cover shows Ida wearing a blue nightgown, holding hands with her baby sister. They are standing in the arbor of a garden, and the baby is reaching out a pink, pudgy hand toward a blooming sunflower, a look of wonder upon her face. Surely a charming, pastoral tale which I would most likely not want to get within a hundred feet of, were I a four-year old boy.
“Come on!” I prodded, opening the book. “Give it a chance!”
The title page is quite similar: Ida is now helping the baby take her first steps. Behind them is the white fence, nearly overgrown with majestic blooming sunflowers.
And off to the left-hand side, sitting hunched with knees drawn to its chest, sits a small, hooded figure, its face obscured by shadow.
Arlo stared at this image for a long time.
Then, “Read it,” he said.
The next page intensifies the scenario. We are still standing in front of the sunflower-strewn arbor. But now Ida clutches her baby sister to her more tightly, looking in wide-eyed concern as the seated goblin has now stood and three more identically hooded figures are approaching from stage right. One carries a ladder. One carries a hornpipe.
The story doesn’t properly begin until the following page:
“When Papa was away at sea, and Mama in the arbor, Ida played her wonder horn to rock the baby still – but never watched. So the goblins came.”
One clue that this is a Sendak book is the way he likes to spread out his sentences. Those opening two sentences are broken up into chunks and spread out over the course of 6 gorgeous, full color paintings which cram narrative information galore.
In these opening pages, a full day has passed. The sun has risen over a rocky coast, at which old, mighty ships are moored. Ida and her mother and baby sister stand with their backs to us, dresses rippling.
Next we are at the arbor, in which Ida’s mother sits with dark lines beneath her eyes, a dead look about her, not caring that her baby is now screaming in anguish, writhing in Ida’s arms. Papa has gone to sea – we can still see the boat in the background – and his absence has destroyed this family.
Off to the side, goblins scurry, still clutching their ladder.
Later that evening, Ida stands by her window, playing her horn as the sunflowers creep into her room. The baby nearly leaps out of her crib in joy, but that joy is short-lived. The goblins have pushed open the window, and as darkness falls, the baby is carted away, screaming in terror.
An entire world of story is contained within these drawings. Again, the narrative is simply this:
“When Papa was away at sea, and Mama in the arbor, Ida played her wonder horn to rock the baby still – but never watched. So the goblins came.”
Indeed.
Sendak considered this to be the third volume of a trilogy that began with Where the Wild Things Are(1963) and continuing with In the Night Kitchen (1970). They may not at first seem to have a great deal in common, but he says that they are all about moments in which a parent has turned their back and in that moment, the child must make a decision by themselves.
If you own the former two, you owe it to yourself to pick up this one as well. You may find that it casts Max and his wild things in a new light. And the next time you watch Labyrinth, look for it displayed prominently on Jennifer Connelly’s bookshelf near the beginning of the film.



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