I’m stealing the title of this post from a poem that appears in a book of the same name to discuss Outside Over There, and there’s a reason for that.
Perhaps you’re familiar with the movie Labyrinth. In it, Jennifer Connelly has to enter the realm of the Goblin King (David Bowie) to save her brother (the movie will be discussed as part of the next Parental Advisory podcast).The movie is, in part, inspired by the works of Maurice Sendak, and, in particular, his 1981 book Outside Over There. The plot of Outside Over There is very similar– in it, 9 year old Ida’s baby sister is stolen by goblins, and Ida must journey into “outside over there” to find and rescue her.
Sendak said in an interview that Outside Over There is the last of three books created to acknowledge the inner world of children, which is often chaotic and feels out of control (I’m paraphrasing radically here). The other two books are Where The Wild Things Are and In The Night Kitchen. Of the three Outside Over There is, I think, the most unsettling and the most fascinating.
In Where The Wild Things Are, Max’s anger and imagination can’t be contained within mere physical walls. His escape allows him to get his out of control feelings out, to calm down and return home, a place where he can count on coming back home, to soup that is “still hot”. While it’s not a comfortable book for a lot of people, it has a comforting resolution. That isn’t the case in Outside Over There.
Ida’s parents are absent– her father is literally out to sea, and her mother is mentally unavailable. This leaves Ida with unwanted responsibility for her sister. While Ida is, in the words of my son, “busily doing something else”, goblins steal her sister away, leaving an ice baby. And Ida, at first, doesn’t notice. As her anger rises, there’s a storm out the window with a ship astray at sea.
This is the nightmare of so many parents– that their child might be stolen away. And it’s unsettling to certain children that their parents might be absent, even if they’re there; that they could be kidnapped themselves; that their sibling could go missing on their watch; that, like “Ida mad”, they could hold that terrible storm inside.
Ida goes on a journey to find her sister, but she is lost. She’s going in the wrong direction, still unable to see her sister in the goblin world of “outside over there”. When finally she turns around and finds the goblins, they are all babies, and, like the Pied Piper she must charm them away with music into the churning water to reveal which one is her sister. Like Max, she takes control, and finds her way back home. In the illustrations the goblin babies are fascinating and disturbing. Those are the pictures my daughter turns to again and again.
But unlike Max, Ida does not return to the comfort of a mother who nourishes him even when she’s not present. Instead, she comes home to a letter from her father telling her to take care of her mother and sister. Her storm has passed, but she doesn’t get to be a child again.
Outside Over There contains feelings both frightening and glad, ambiguous wording, and illustrations that create the impression of a strangely wrought and unpredictable fairly tale. When I talk about it with my daughter it’s in a very nonlinear fashion. We examine the illustrations, we talk about what some words and phrases mean, we skip around and come up with more answers than questions. For her this is fascinating, but not really recognizable as a traditional story. My son, an older brother who is often “busily doing something else” or doesn’t necessarily want his sister on top of him all the time, wants nothing to do with it. Ida’s anger, expressed so visibly and vividly, is unsettling to him.
Not that long ago I wrote about R.L. Stine’s comments on writing horror for children. Stine (to paraphrase) said that scary stories for children need to be over-the-top fantastic, funny, and sometimes gross, so that kids don’t think the stories could possibly be real. I would say that’s the kind of thing my Monster Kid likes- the Scooby Doo school of horror. Outside Over There is not that kind of story. It taps into something deep inside children, something that speaks to certain children and can really be unsettling to others, and certainly to adults (especially those looking for deeper meaning). It definitely wasn’t written with the same purpose in mind as the Goosebumps books. But both somehow fall into the wider category of scary books for kids.
If you are librarian or parent reading this, whether or not you’d classify this gorgeously illustrated and idiosyncratic Caldecott Honor winner as a scary book for kids doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that you understand the kind of effect it may have on a reader, and plan to take time to talk about it when you put it in a child’s hands, if that child needs it. In my classes on children’s literature, I learned about many Sendak books: Where The Wild Things Are, In The Night Kitchen, and Chicken Soup With Rice… but not once (and I’ve taken multiple classes) was this book ever mentioned. And really, I think it should be.