Outside Over There has been with us since 1981. Now Puffin, bravely in the face of a lot of muttering that this is not a book for children, has provided a full-size paperback edition. How should we respond? How can we offer it to children? Which children is it for? In short
What do you do with a book like that?
These are not easy questions to answer and they can be raised in connection with books other than this one: books we as adults find hard to ‘place’; books we label `difficult’. We can find clues which may help us answer them in Selma G Lanes’ fascinating book, The Art of Maurice Sendak. She recounts how in 1976 Sendak described the beginnings of Outside Over There. As always with him, the words came first.
‘I have the first lines of my new picture book. It’s so dense already that I can’t get beyond them. I’m not even sure if I know what they mean. But I’ll get there. My unconscious knows exactly what they are.’
Outside Over There is the story of a family – father at sea, mother distracted, Ida left to watch the baby, the baby stolen by goblins while Ida plays her horn. Ida climbs ‘backwards out her window into outside over there’ – a fantasy dream-like nightmare place – where she has to find and rescue her sister. A synopsis of the narrative line says nothing of the effect on the reader of either language or pictures.
This is the third book in a trilogy which began in 1963 with Where the Wild Things Are. Sendak again:
‘This last part of my trilogy is going to be the strangest. Wild Things now seems to me to be a very simple book – its simplicity is probably what made it successful; but I could never be that simple again. Night Kitchen I much prefer – it reverberates on double levels. But this third book will reverberate on triple levels.’
And reverberate it does if you let it. Sendak allowed all kinds of things conscious, semi-conscious and unconscious to contribute to its creation. ‘My stories come in bits and pieces of memories that don’t seem related for a very long time.’
Here it was the memory of a story from Grimm that he had illustrated in The Juniper Tree: The Goblins, about a baby being stolen away, of a childhood book with a girl in a yellow coat in the rain and of being looked after by his older sister Natalie. Add the thirties’ obsession with babies and child movie-stars, the Dionne quins and the kidnapping of the Lindbergh child (Sendak was born in 1928), the experience of several years living in rural Connecticut after leaving New York, lots of Mozart, especially The Magic Flute, and you have something of the texture of meanings that went into the book.
We don’t need to match those exactly to take our own meanings from it. It’s a book that requires subjective responses and sparks off hours of talk and reflection. One friend commented, ‘I can only tell you that I read it as the solitary, bookish, eldest child who felt responsible for his younger siblings. Few children’s books I’ve read touch those deep feelings.’ Middle school children were moved to recall a host of stories of baby-sitting, of being left in charge. Is this the age for the book? Do you need a certain distancing from childhood – Sendak’s dominant theme – to be able to respond to the subtle postures, gazes, evasions, expressions and movements of these pictures. What do we make of mother in all this? Whose story is it? (Sendak says Ida is the heroine but the story is really the baby’s.)
Through his work Sendak says he is ‘trying to unravel this loose mystery of myself … of my own childhood.’ He offers us, adults and children, a way into understanding something of ourselves, the powerful and mysterious experience of childhood and the way children manage to come to grips with the realities of their lives. He knows too that it is something beyond words. `Whenever I get really close to it I think, no it’s from some deeper part of myself than my head.’
We can only find the answers to our questions about this book by sharing, sharing it with individuals and classes, of whatever age, that we know well, by listening to what they have to say and the stories they have to tell, or allowing them to be silent and giving them the opportunity to paint, act, dance or make music. If we let them, the children will show us the way.