John Cuncliffe

Degrees of Enchantment

Seven children's picture-books

When is a children’s picture-book not a children’s picture-book? This is a question that may be raised by the new Sendak, Outside Over There. (Bodley Head £5.95). It is beautiful, spooky, weird, and fascinating; a fantasy set in dream-landscapes, reminiscent of various worlds of the artistic imagination: eighteenth-century seascapes; Italian old masters; pastoral landscapes, with woods, streams, and shepherds. Enter four hooded figures, bringing a threatening nightmare quality. They are clearly up to no good. This feeling is confirmed when they push through the window and steal Ida’s baby sister, leaving an ice-changeling in her place. But Ida can fly across the sky, like a medieval angel, and discover the hooded figures to be ‘just babies like her sister’. Rescue follows, with the aid of her wonder horn, and the restoration of a secure world, back in the arbor with mama. It is, of course, superbly illustrated; a stimulating visual adventure for the reader, with a brief, poetic text, that matches well with the pictures. It is so refreshingly unlike other picture-story books that it may be doubted if it is for children at all; the visual approach may seem too sophisticated for the young. To test this, I read it to the children of a multi-racial city school, beginning with the top-infants and working through to the fourth-year. It was outstanding in the interest it aroused, and the discussions it stimulated. Why could Ida fly? Why did the seascape seen through her window change from calm to storm in accordance with Ida’s moods? What was the significance of the egg-shells, in the scene showing the goblin-babies? Such questions were explored in detail, and with evident enjoyment, revealing successive layers of meaning in the book, and producing some highly ingenious answers. It is, I conclude an outstanding picture-book for anyone of any age.

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