BOOKS

The melancholy babies

ANNE COLLINS June 22 1981
BOOKS

The melancholy babies

ANNE COLLINS June 22 1981

The melancholy babies

BOOKS

ANNE COLLINS

OUTSIDE OVER THERE Maurice Sendak (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, $16.95)

No more intrepid Mickeys flying night kitchen or Maxes in wolf suits staring the wild things right in their yellow eyes. The all-conquering boy heroes of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963) and In the Night Kitchen (1970) caused a revolution in picture books with their direct confrontation of the “ugly” emotions of childhood—fear, anxiety, anger, the stirrings of sex. Librarians may have shelved Wild Things high and painted diapers over Mickey’s triumphant little penis, but when the post-publication furore died down, adults realized what kids knew all along—that these books released children from confusing emotional bonds through the effective means of fantasy. Kids’ victories in a kids’ world.

Outside Over There, the last part of Sendak’s picture-book trilogy, abandons those victorious and wicked city boys for 18th-century Grimm country and the melancholy inner landscape of a duty-bound young girl. Sendak is once again dealing with the emotional turmoil of a child and the fantasy trip that eases it. But Ida is no adventuresome captain of time and space. She is confined to girl-land, where the currency is love which can only be bought by responsible and good behavior.

When Papa was away at sea, and Mama in the arbor. There stands Ida, trying to hold on to too many pounds of squalling baby. The baby has lost her hat but Mama hasn’t noticed. Ida can’t both hang onto the baby and bend over to reach the hat; she’s so distracted by her problem that she doesn’t see the goblins, faceless and robed like sinister monks, with their baby-snatching ladder.

Ida played her wonder horn to rock the baby still—but never watched. She plays and beautiful van Gogh sunflowers grow big in her window; she forgets the baby, quiet in her cradle. The goblins come up their ladder and steal the baby, leaving a changeling in. her place. When Ida turns to pick up her sister she finds herself clutching, and murmuring “How I love you” to, a staring baby made of ice. The sunflowers grow wild into the room, a nasty ivylike expression of the cost of Ida’s selfabsorption. Out the other window a ship sinks under a crack of Turneresque lightning. One lapse from good little Ida and all love is lost, her father figuratively killed at sea.

Ida’s trip to the gloomy cave-world where the goblins have taken her sister is not in the king-of-the-castle spirit of the earlier books, but a grim journey to win back love. Ida slips on her mother’s rain cloak, as lost in its huge golden folds as she is in her guilt and pain, and clumsily makes another mistake: she climbs “backwards out her window into outside over there.” Floating wrong side up in the rain, she has to bear responsibility for all the wrongs of the world. Sendak has painted a landscape “over there” made up of idle unhappy boys, a shepherd sleeping while his sheep stray, goblins like grim reapers, storm clouds from the worst November, the baby locked in a cave and Mama more desolate than ever. The only way Ida can set it right is to wait for the divine intervention of her Papa, his voice from over the sea telling her what she has to do.

The instrument of her pleasure must now serve others, and obedient Ida is told to make the goblins dance to her horn; they turn out to be infants like her sister, who fiercely dance until they turn into a dancing stream. She finds the baby and follows the goblin stream home, through a sunny panel where the shepherd is awake, the boys happily playing, Mozart composing in a little thatched hut. All is once again right with the world, but nothing has changed for Ida. Her mother holds out a letter from Papa which only repeats the terms of their relationship: “I’ll be home one day, and my brave, bright little Ida must watch the baby and her Mama for her Papa, who loves her always.” She must watch to be loved.

There is a temptation to listen to the censor board of the heart when dealing with children’s books; Ida’s girl-world rings with all kinds of touchy resonances an adult woman would not like to see reinforced in a child. Ida is in emotional bondage. Duty equals love, disobedience the loss of it. The moment she forgets the equation it results in disaster. Sendak allows her to regain solid ground, but all she finds there is stability, no happy ending. Outside Over There, for all its 352 words, has the feel of a modern novel, a whole range of hurtful emotions roused and nowhere to vent them, no outlet, no resolutionmixed victories or none at all. Sendak has done it again: produced a book that dares adults to diaper its emotions. Children are probably tougher than we are when it comes to the ambiguities of childhood.