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Maurice Sendak once said that the subject of all his work was the “extraordinary heroism of children in the face of . . . a mostly indifferent adult world.” Nowhere is this theme more lavishly treated than in Outside Over There (1981), the third — after Where the Wild Things Are (1963) and In the Night Kitchen (1970) — in a trilogy of fantasy quests. Like naughty Max and hungry Mickey, the hero of Outside Over There is a furious and resolute child. Her name is Ida, and she’s been left in charge of baby sister while Mama sits in the arbor, distracted by a lifetime, or perhaps only a moment, of melancholy; Papa is “away at sea.” When Ida turns to noodle on her wonder-horn, a thin brass curl whose bell points backward, a crew of hooded goblins tumbles through the window. They abscond with the baby and leave behind a changeling made of ice. Ida’s rescue mission is a success — the goblins are unmasked as babies themselves, and dissolve into a stream as she blows a shimmying melody. The girls return home to find that Papa has sent a letter:

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.

A panel from Outside Over There

A panel from Outside Over There

Max and Mickey’s labors are rewarded with a warm bed, but young Ida’s meed is more work. Outside Over There offers heavy consolations: acknowledging resentment and disappointment, accepting responsibility, caring for others. The illustrations, a dusty hurricane of paintings recalling Caspar David Friedrich and Philipp Otto Runge, are lambent and hallucinatory. Fabrics billow, perspectives shift, and the baby emerges from an eggshell. In a lonely subterranean grotto sits Charles Lindbergh Jr. At one point, the sisters glide by Sendak’s idol Mozart holed up in a cottage, playing the fortepiano.

Outside Over There bewitched Jonathan Cott, a culture journalist who profiled Sendak for Rolling Stone in the 1970s and collaborated with him on a book about Victorian children’s literature. In THERE’S A MYSTERY THERE: THE PRIMAL VISION OF MAURICE SENDAK (Doubleday, $30), Cott parses Ida’s journey with the help of four equally obsessed “companion guides”: Richard M. Gottlieb, a Freudian analyst; Margaret Klenck, a Jungian analyst; Jane Doonan, an art historian; and the playwright Tony Kushner, who was a friend of Sendak’s. Each dialogue, written up at length, is given a chapter; Cott’s interviews with Sendak are also included. The conversations would have read more briskly as transcripts, and one grows a bit weary of Cott, who is ever the prepared and eager student. But the book is an inventive, intelligent pleasure, a collaborative close reading that is serious and loving. I wish there were more criticism like it.

A panel from Where the Wild Things Are. All artwork © Maurice Sendak. Courtesy HarperCollins

A panel from Where the Wild Things Are. All artwork © Maurice Sendak. Courtesy HarperCollins

The analysts talk Winnicott and dreams, the art historian invokes Leonardo, and Kushner admires Sendak’s “deliberate so-called errors of syntax, the way language flows over its own mistakes, and flows because of its mistakes”: he calls it “immigrant speech.”

The ice thing only dripped and stared,
And Ida mad knew goblins had been there.

Sendak, who spent years in analysis and enjoyed the game of interpreting his art, would have appreciated Cott’s choice of interlocutors. Still, his most penetrating critics have always been children, who respond to his books with their bodies as well as their minds. Where the Wild Things Are has inspired their most fervent admiration. Cott relates the story of a severely autistic boy who, on careful examination of the three spreads depicting Max’s island rumpus, uttered his first words. Another boy sent Sendak a drawing of a wild thing, to which Sendak reciprocated with a drawing of his own. “Then I got a letter back from his mother, and she said: ‘Jim loved your card so much he ate it.’ ”

Ingestion and expulsion is our most primitive drama, and Sendak rendered it with a surreal and comic literalism. One strip, collected in Fantasy Sketches (1970), begins with a wailing baby swallowing a stork and ends with him eating his mother. Of course grown-ups are disturbed by such appalling tantrums, which are routine in Sendak; some have also been disturbed by how his characters look. As a young artist, he had a hard time getting published — editors found them too ugly. “They’re all a kind of caricature of me,” he said later. “They look as if they’d been hit on the head.” The bodies are short and squat, resembling his Eastern European family. (He attributed the grotesque attributes of the wild things to the moles and teeth and nose hairs of his aunts and uncles, who were “the real monsters of my childhood.”) Max and Mickey have simple cartoonish faces with dark slashing eyebrows and mouths that flatten and gape. They are the merry ancestors of the baby goblins — fat dumplings with broad noses and wrinkled brows. But Ida and her sister have large, pale eyes, eyebrows that arc like half-moons, and blushing cheeks. They are rosy-lipped and haunted, their skin lit from within, as if by grace.

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