There’s A Mystery There: The Primal Vision of Maurice Sendak by Jonathan Cott
Available: Hardcover, Kindle edition
I love Maurice Sendak. One of my favorite books to read aloud to children, especially when reading in a storyhour, is Where The Wild Things Are. I mean, there is nothing like getting a crowd of kindergarteners to roar their terrible roars without holding back.
But there is also something that makes many people (mostly adults, I think) uneasy about his work. There are uncomfortable emotions, uncontrollable imaginations, and so much hunger in his illustrations. These are all most evident in the three books he referred to as his “trilogy”: Where the Wild Things Are, In The Night Kitchen, and Outside Over There. Of these three books, Outside Over There is probably the least well known, and also the one that came from the deepest places in Sendak’s mind and heart, as well as having broad influences from his past and present circumstances and experiences. In There’s A Mystery There, Jonathan Cott delves as far down as he can into Sendak’s psyche and casts a wide net to capture the manifold ways it expresses itself, specifically through an examination of Outside Over There.
In a serendipitous set of circumstances, Cott met and interviewed Sendak in 1976, just as he was starting Outside Over There, and again in 1981, after receiving an advance copy of the book directly from the author, so he witnessed both the beginnings and the winding down of the process of creation for what Sendak described as “the last excavation of my soul.”
There’s A Mystery There is Cott’s attempt to go further into Sendak’s soul by exploring his past– family, childhood, and career; his obsessions and associations– the Lindbergh kidnapping, Mozart, the artists who inspired him; his many books, particularly Where The Wild Things Are, In The Night Kitchen, and Outside Over There; and Sendak’s own thoughts and comments as expressed to Cott through interviews. It goes further by including discussions of Outside Over There, specifically, with psychoanalyst Dr. Richard Gottlieb, Jungian analyst Margaret Klenck, art historian Jane Doonan, and writer, co-creator, and Sendak biographer Tony Kushner, These are all fascinating discussions, exploring the book from a variety of different angles, and from my point of view as someone who reads a lot of children’s books, reads a lot about children’s books, and loves the art of Maurice Sendak, this was very readable and eye-opening. A brief biographical sketch does not offer the fascinating window that the biographical information and commentary on Sendak’s past found in the first half of this book, so for anyone wanting to go below surface details this is a great resource. The art historian’s close examination of the book’s illustrations is very much worthwhile for someone wanting to get into the details of the art in the book. The other discussions are interesting if you want to delve deeper into Sendak’s psyche, but an average reader may not necessarily need that level of detail.
From reading this book, I discovered new connections between Sendak and his work, and made observations that I hadn’t made previously. What I didn’t find was a definitive answer to what the book is about, what it really means, or why, despite my fascination with the book, the ending is so frustrating for me. Rather than providing straightforward information, Cott’s writing is more of a spiral in and out, twisting around the center of what Outside Over There, giving the reader clues without closing the window to manifold worlds.
Outside Over There inspired the movie Labyrinth, and if you are looking for a satisfying ending, you probably ought to check it out. Sendak’s version continues to keep me wondering, and Cott’s writing, while it resolves some things, leaves the book still a mystery.
Recommended for students and lovers of children’s literature, picture book illustration, literary criticism, and Maurice Sendak: and for libraries serving educators and librarians.
Note: I’ve previously written about Outside Over There. If you’d like to see what I said, click here.