The Extraordinary Happiness of Completing a Project: “Four to Llewelyn’s Edge.” Also, the Weekly Video.

For almost two years, one of my best friends and I have worked on an enormous project together.

How did it begin? A few years ago, after my children’s literature reading group read Peter Pan, I became very interested in J. M. Barrie, and I read Andrew Birkin’s terrific biography, J. M. Barrie and the Lost Boys. Birkin gives a tantalizingly brief description of a book Barrie made using photographs of the four Llewelyn boys he adored. Barrie made one copy of The Boy Castaway of Black Lake Island for himself, and one copy for the Llewelyn family, but the boys’ father left their copy on the train, so only one copy of this book exists.

I noticed that this one copy happened to be in Beinecke Library, the rare books library at Yale, where I went to college and law school. I needed to go up to New Haven for some reason, so I stopped by the library to see the book.

I was blown away by this book. I LOVED it. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Absolutely marvelous, a whole new way of telling a story and keeping a photo album – and Barrie is an extraordinary writer. I’m still haunted by the book’s opening line: “We set out to be wrecked.” What is so striking about the book? Barrie provides elaborate chapter outlines, in the old-fashioned way, but when you turn the pages to read, the book isn’t there — only the photographs, with their captions. Readers must fill in the story from their own imaginations.

To my great good fortune, I have a friend who was as captivated by The Boy Castaways as I was. As we were talking about it, we came up with our unbelievably exciting plan: we’d do our OWN Boy Castaways book, with photographs of our OWN children.

We prepared for months before we took the first photograph. We scouted in Central Park for possible sites. We did a storyboard that matched photo locations with costumes with captions. She scoured eBay for interesting things to buy for costumes – a miniature bugle, a wooden shield, a ruffled tuxedo shirt, a fez. (She was thrilled to have a legitimate reason to buy all that fun stuff on eBay that you WANT to buy but can’t really justify.)

At an early stage, my friend was enthusiastically describing the project to her husband, who clearly was overwhelmed at the thought of the amount of time and effort that this was going to consume.

“I can’t believe you’re going to do this,” he said. Then he corrected himself. “No, actually, this is perfect for you two. You’re going to love doing it.”

Over the months, step by step, the book took shape. The amazing Tracy Charnock took the photographs. My friend handled costumes and props. I bought the good-behavior-bribery ice cream that followed every photo session, including the session that ended at 8:00 a.m. My friend wrote the skeleton story told in chapter headings, about a royal family forced to flee and go in search of a magical bird. I spent an unbelievably long time laboring over the one-page preface, written from the point of view of the royal children. It took us two hours of solid thinking to come up with the title: Four to Llewelyn’s Edge (homage to Barrie and the Llewelyn boys). The brilliant Gabe Greenberg of Greenberg Editions improved what we created and turned it into an actual book.

Well, at last Four to Llewelyn’s Edge is finished. It’s gorgeous, far more beautiful than I ever expected. I almost can’t bear it, I love it so much. It’s mysterious and magical.

Fourtollewelyn'sedge

So many things about this project delighted me.

It was fun to work on a project with my children, and it was fun to work on a project with a good friend.

It made time memorable. We had so many adventures along the way, and because they were part of this project, they all stand out. The time the children jumped into the fountain at the Conservatory Garden. The time that we rowed the boats on the Boat Pond. The time we chased the puzzled foreign tourists out of the tower at Belvedere Castle. The crazy heat of the morning when we were taking photos on the stairs near Bethesda Fountain. The time my younger daughter burned her hand on the sparkler.

It allowed us to take advantage of the tremendous beauties of Central Park. There were so many gorgeous places in which to set our scenes, and it was thrilling to make good use of the riches that the park offers. The flowering trees! The hobbit-house next to the Boat Pond! The stone carving of the birds hatching in a nest!

So many little elements delight me. I love the fact that the title is Four to Llewelyn’s Edge, yet five children are pictured on the book cover. The fact that we managed to work the cover of Peter Pan into one of the pictures. The fact that my friend included a “Kansas City, Mo.” banner in honor of my hometown. The fact that although the story describes the children’s adventures in an untracked wilderness, the buildings of New York City mysteriously rise around them. The fact that we managed to tweak the title font to make it fantastical but not too Tolkien-y, not too Harry-Potterish. The fact that in writing the Introduction I manage to make obvious allusions to both C. S. Lewis and Winston Churchill. The fact that my friend and I make an appearance, in disguise, in the last picture.

Would I have undertaken this kind of project before my happiness project? No. It would never have occurred to me to do it – before I had resolutions like “Force myself to wander,” “Take time for projects,” “Cultivate an atmosphere of growth,” “Ask for help,” “Spend time with friends,” “Show up,” “Indulge in a modest splurge,” “Read at whim,” “Appreciate the seasons and this time of life,” “Make Books,” and most importantly, “Be Gretchen.”

In its current form, the book is big and luxurious and expensive. Only eleven copies exist. The dream now is to see it published in another version – whether on a self-publishing site or through a real publisher. I do think it would be a wonderful picture book, in the tradition of The Lonely Doll, Knuffle Bunny, Sector 7 — and The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island. Trying to make that happen is a task for spring. Happiness Project, Part II.

Maybe I will try to post some of it here — a sample. Gosh, I love it.

* 2010 Happiness Challenge: For those of you following the 2010 Happiness Project Challenge, to make 2010 a happier year, this month’s focus is Love. Last week’s resolution was Don’t expect praise or appreciation. Did you try to follow that resolution? Did it help to boost your happiness?

This week’s resolution is to Kiss more, hug more, touch more. Of all the hundreds of resolutions that I follow, this is one of my very favorites! More kissing, touching, and hugging are easy and delightful ways to boost your happiness.

If you want to read more about this resolution, check out…
Kiss more, hug more, touch more.
Why happiness IS a warm hug.
In which I become enraged with my husband and lose my temper.

* If you’re new, here’s information on the 2010 Happiness Challenge (or watch the intro video). It’s never too late to start! You’re not behind, jump in right now, sign up here. For more ideas, check out the Happiness Project site on Woman’s Day.

* The good news: you can view the entire The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island on the internet. The bad news: I can’t put in a live link to the library’s image site. To view:
Go to the Beinecke Library site
Under “Finding Books, Images, and Manuscripts,” go to ORBIS, the online catalog
Search by title for “boy castaways”
Hit the blue #2 entry that will come up
Hit the link to “View images from the Beinecke Library’s Digital Images Online Database.”
This is quick and easy, despite sounding complicated!

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • sarah

    I would love to see a few pages! And I would be in line for that book if it’s ever available for purchase. I have always loved adventure/castaway books (from Swallows and Amazons to Baby Island) and so far my daughter is in agreement.

  • Sarah

    This sounds like a fantastic project, and I’m sure it will be something that both you and the children will love to look back on in years to come.

    I love the front cover of the book – the whole style reminds me so much of favourite books from my childhood. (Although I can’t quite put my finger on any titles!) It looks like a classic, and must be so satisfying to know that you created it all yourself.

    I look forward to a glimpse inside!

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks!! So glad to hear you like the cover. It reminds me of those old
      covers, too — and the silhouettes — remember the old version of THE BOXCAR
      CHILDREN? Love that!

  • Debra

    WOW! Congratulations. What a wonderful idea and what beautiful execution. The cover looks gorgeous. I am so proud of you. (And I love your enthusiasm.)

  • Sara Anne Berger

    What a great idea and the J.M. Barrie photographs are amazing!
    I have to say I’ve only been reading your blog for about six months, but I love it and I especially love when you talk about children’s literature–I get no end of teasing for how much I love children’s books and it’s nice to hear about someone else who loves them and is so knowledgeable and dedicated! Your blog is something I look forward to reading every day!

    • gretchenrubin

      Start your own children’s literature reading group so you can share your
      passion with people who are also lovers of kidlit. It will make you SO
      HAPPY!! And if you haven’t read PETER PAN, run right out and get a copy.
      It’s not what you expect — not at all.

      • readerlouise

        Gretchen (I’m really enjoying your blog, I only found it this year), it must be fantastic living in a big city where you can have a childrens book group. I live in a small town in Australia, and have had enough trouble finding an adult book group- so starting a children’s literature group here isn’t really an option. But the online world is rather incredible – as I think you know! I started a discussion group on yahoo last month. We’re reading through all the magnificent books in Julia Eccleshare’s mammoth 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up. It is making me very happy that’s for sure. A great experience so far. We would love to welcome you or Sara Anne, or other kidlit fans to join us.

        • gretchenrubin

          This sounds terrific. What a great idea! I’ve never heard of Eccleshare’s
          book, MUST check that out!

  • betsy

    please, please post samples! I’ve been hoping for samples since you first started talking about this book. And I’ve been looking around for some willing children (or perhaps just friends) to do a similar project with. It looks fantastic, and I’m so happy that it’s finished!

  • wendegarrison

    Please please please make this book available for purchase.

    Your books, your ideas, your worldview is magical and it makes the world SO MUCH BETTER!

    Please share this book with your public.

    We would buy it.

    It would transform us.

    • gretchenrubin

      Awww, this is so nice to hear! I REALLY want to do it so I hope I can!

  • Debra

    Because of you, on my way home I checked out the J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys biography:) I adored the movie “Finding Neverland.”

    • gretchenrubin

      You will love it. Fascinating. Crazy: I’ve never seen FINDING NEVERLAND. I
      worry that I won’t like the portrayal of Barrie. But I’ve heard it’s great,
      so I really should see it.

      • craig

        watch it with a box of tissue, always makes me cry and then want to call my family.

  • 423

    Gretchen, this is a project which really sounds like a labor of love, a special collaboration with friends and family, and a wonderful keepsake for your children and their childrens’ children. This sounds actually EVEN better than the Happiness tome (is this possible?)…in that it combines your talents and interests in a very unique way.

    Do share some spreads with us digitally when you can. The cover is sooo right.

    P.S. Love the opening lines of the original…

  • jenergy

    Congratulations on finishing such a fantastic, exciting, wonderful project! It gets me all fired up to read about how happy you are.

  • jennyshain

    We MUST see Pics!!!
    Congratulations on completing your dream… may it continue & be published!
    Jenny Fox Shain

  • jennyshain

    CoNgRaTuLaTi0nS on completing your dream!
    May it lead to more creativity & publishing 🙂
    Can’t wait to see pics!

    Jenny Shain

    • gretchenrubin

      I will have to figure out a way to put the pictures up here! — at least
      some of them. Thanks so much, everyone, for your enthusiasm! Now I feel
      fired up to tackle the next steps.

  • Looks nice! Hopefully one day I’ll get as far with my dream as you. 🙂

  • Terri

    Sounds like an incredibly fun and happiness-inspiring project – can’t wait to see a sample!

    FYI, I looked at the book at Beinecke – I was perfectly fine until the part about the lynching of pirate “Swarthy”; that made me quite unhappy. 🙁

  • Joanna

    Would love to see an excerpt of your book!

  • suzie

    Congratulations on your new book 🙂 The cover does look beautiful. Can’t wait to see the inside 🙂

    It’s the little ideas like these that make me come back to your blog, again and again. You have a gift for making people feel inspired, like they can do anything that they set their minds to.

    It’s always a joy to read a new positive entries on your blog particularly after a long, rough day (or week). Keep it up!

  • banuta

    what a fantastic project! what a great and brilliant idea and proof that creating something out of nothing is a joyous event. bravo for completing it.

  • Rose Ann

    What I love about you Gretchen, is that you have so many tricks up your sleeve. You never fail to amaze me with all the wonderful surprises that you have in store for us. Can’t wait until I can buy & read your book to my grandaughters 🙂 I too love children’s books, do you remember : “The Lonely Doll” ?

    • gretchenrubin

      I love THE LONELY DOLL and all of Dare Wright’s books. I read her biography
      and also have ordered every book of hers I can get my hands on. LUNA! They
      are AMAZING.

  • Oh, please, please, please post a sample of your wonderful book here! What a magical adventure…

  • karenhphillips

    Your book sounds like a wonderful read, but was even better as a family project. Gretchen, you, your friend, and all the children will remember forever the adventures of making it. Wish I’d tho’t of doing something like that with our kids. But no regrets–we’ve had plenty of adventures together through the years, wonderful memories hubby and I treasure, as well as our children, now 22 and 24.

  • motherteresa

    Oh my goodness! Thank you a million times for including the link to the book! What a delightful treausure! Such a treasure to have. I can only imagine how precious your own little book must be to you.

    I would also be one who would run out and purchase it, but in the same breath, I am plannning how I can do something similar. My children are grown, but I have the most delicious grandchildren, neices, and nephews. My mind is all a twitter with the possibilites.

    I’m adding “meet gretchen rubin” to my bucket list today!

  • Wow! I’m really speechless at the enormity of this project, and also its selfishness (meant entirely in a good way). So often the projects on my to-do list involve work and obligations. This project was all about you and your family. I LOVE IT! I cannot wait to see more pictures of this marvelous book.

  • Jilly

    When I was in first grade, we were paired up with children in 6th grade as a mentoring move. There would be time set aside for us to read books or play together. At the end of the session, my older friend made a book for me. It’s a take off of Jack and the Beanstalk. She had to draw the pictures and tell the story, and then the book was bound as part of the project. It is one of my favorite childhood treasures.

    Yours is such an exciting and detailed undertaking! I can’t wait to see a few pages of it when you manage to post or have it published.

  • Philadelphia Reader

    I like hugging people I know, but if a waiter were to touch me I would give a lower tip. I would find it very presumptuous for a server to touch me. I did my share of waiting on tables back in college days, but I would have never thought to touch one of my customers. This kind of behavior goes in the same box as the “My name is blah blah” business that we have been subject to for the last number of years. The respectful line between waiter and customer has been lost in many restaurants.

  • beccal

    As a former employee of Beinecke, I concur, there is nothing as heartwarming as this book and the Barrie collection. Fortunately, for the non-New Haven dwellers, the great librarians at Beinecke have scanned the book in its entirety and it is available to view here: http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/dl_crosscollex/SearchExecXC.asp?srchtype=VCG

  • As a former employee of Beinecke, I concur, there is nothing as heartwarming as this book and the Barrie collection. Fortunately, for the non-New Haven dwellers, the great librarians at Beinecke have scanned the book in its entirety and it is available to view here: http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/dl_crosscollex/SearchExecXC.asp?srchtype=VCG

  • Completion of a desired task will give you an ultimate feeling of peak point…

  • Great stuff. I really like your writing style.

  • lizzy

    will you post some pictures of your book ? would love to see them

  • Dana Jones Sparks

    I love, love, love this idea and so happy that you were able to complete it – also absolutely captivated that the Barrie book is available for online viewing.

  • Ginger Horton

    I have no idea how I missed this, but just coming across it, oh, how I love it so! Love love love it. I would absolutely want to purchase one, should the dream of publication ever become a reality.