Flashback Friday: Backwards Out Her Window into Outside Over There . . .

You’re a resentful older sister who does not want to be responsible for taking care of her baby sister. But when you’re not paying attention, goblins come to steal her away and then it’s up to you to get her back . . .

Do you remember:

Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak (HarperCollins, c1981)

In this award-winning (1982 Caledecott honor book, 1981 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, 1982 National Book Award) picture book by Maurice Sendak, readers are treated to some of the author/artist’s finest work.  It’s a tale that opens with a girl whose father is away at sea and whose mother is distant, leaving her to care for her younger baby sister.  Ida feels resentful of the task and so does it only partially, playing her horn for the baby, but not watching her.  Thus the goblins are able to come and steal away Ida’s sister, leaving an ice baby in her place.  When Ida discovers what’s happened she decides to rescue her sister and goes adventuring in Outside Over There.  Our heroine is ultimately successful in rescuing her sister, defeating the goblins and bringing her back home again.


Maurice Sendak considered this to be the third book in his picture book trilogy on “how children master various feelings – danger, boredom, fear, frustration, jealousy – and manage to come to grips with the realities of their lives.”  Where the Wild Things Are, with Max and his wolf suite is the first of the stories, and In the Night Kitchen where Mickey winds up in dough and getting milk for the morning cake is the second. But it is this third book that is my favorite.  This is likely for many reasons.  First and foremost, it’s the only tale of the three to feature female characters in the major roles. Second, I’m the oldest of five siblings and Ida frustration and resentment are immediately identifiable and understandable to me as an older sibling.  Third,  this is the most classically magical of the three. While not being a specific reference to any fairy tale or classic fantasy story, it feels like one.  The goblins are the fairy folk come to snatch away the child and leave a changeling in its place.  There’s also an echo of George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, where the goblin’s plot is to have one of their own steal away and marry the princess.  Ida undergoes a transformation from resentful sister, to dreamy quester, to fierce and confident rescuer, and finally to a responsible and mature sibling.

I find it interesting that Sendak himself said of this book: It was the story of me and my sister, basically. She’s Ida and her vexation, if not rage, in having to take care of me. To insinuate that as part of a relationship in a book for children is hard for critics because there’s a misconception of what is a children’s book and what it should contain and should not contain and what the subject matter should be and should not be. And primarily it is to be healthy and funny and clever and up-beat and not show the little tattered edges of what life was like. “

Sendak also drew on the real-life story of the Lindburgh baby abduction, countenancing the terror and horrific moment of a child being stolen away–in this case by shadowy goblins in dark robes.  It’s a frightening image, tapping right into the emotions–and certainly not a comfortable or comforting image for any child.  Yet, my son and daughter love this book and ask to have it read again and again.  Sendak, as is so often the case, captures something vital that speaks to the child’s mind and heart, and tells them a story they recognize in themselves.

Outside Over There

The art of this book is stunning with its detail and craft–I certainly can’t describe it justly in this brief flashback post, but it remains some of Sendak’s finest work.  There’s incredible magic and humanity in the pictures, with plenty of little details that will only be noticed by readers over time and analysis.  I’ve included a few images here, but encourage you to find the picture book and view all of it if you’re not familiar.

I first encountered this book while I was in college.  The title caught my attention, the art drew me in and the author surprised me, because I hadn’t known this book.  It’s been a favorite ever since and on my bookshelves. Of course, as soon as I read it, I thought “hey, I know a story like this. Resentful sister watching the baby? Goblins stealing the baby? This sounds a lot like Labyrinth!”   And while the movie isn’t actually based on this book, there are enough similarities that it would seem the book influenced the movie plot.   From what I’ve encountered on the subject in Labyrinth trivia (Mentalfloss has an excellent article here.), Sendak felt that the storyline and several elements were too close to his book and threatened to sue–Henson added the text to the credits: “Jim Henson acknowledges his debt to the works of Maurice Sendak.”  Despite similarities, the book remain distinct from the movie (though I love both).

My son started pulling it off the shelf when he was about three and I wasn’t sure whether he’d like the story, but it was an instant hit.  It’s still a regular favorite in our house and I love when I get a chance to listen to my husband read it aloud.

OOT029 for blog

I It’s a stunning book, a great work of art and literature–but it’s not necessarily a comfortable book.  Like all Sendak’s best stuff, he ignores adult sensibilities and logic to goes after the experiences and realities of a child.

Any other fans?  Comments welcome!



About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on December 27, 2015, in Flashback Fridays and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Have you ever read The Spindlers? Lauren Oliver based it off Outside Over There. Your copy is gorgeous.

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