Why Do I Feel Such Intense Happiness at the Thought of This Piece of Public Art?

Assay: I have a friend who is a working artist. She told me, “When I was starting out, I made money by working as a receptionist at a gallery. When my art career advanced enough so that I could quit that job, another artist friend told me, ‘Now you’ll be working all the time.’”

“What exactly does that mean?” I asked.

“He meant – I have to be looking, thinking, all the time. I have to notice and consider my reactions to everything. Why do I love this display of Christmas lights? What makes this restaurant so ugly?”

I’ve noticed a similar thing happen to me, with happiness. Now, whenever I feel a surge or drop in my happiness, I think: What’s happening, what triggered that? If I’m feeling happier, how can I ramp it up? Why do I suddenly feel blue? I’m trying to be more mindful about my fleeting reactions to thoughts and experiences, and I’m often surprised by what I notice.

For example, I found myself thinking about a famous piece of public art — a luggage trolley apparently halfway through a brick wall at London’s King’s Cross station.

If you’re not a Harry Potter fan, the trolley is a reference to the fact that when magical children leave London to go to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, they take a special train, the Hogwarts Express, which boards from Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross. One of the first things Harry Potter does as part of the magical world is to run through a brick wall to get to the platform hidden between 9 and 10.

This public sculpture doesn’t just make me mildly happy. I love it; I get choked up thinking about it. It gives me a feeling of elevation – one of the most delicate pleasures the world offers. So, I ask: why does it make me feel this way?

First, it’s a celebration of something I particularly love, children’s literature. Second, it’s an acknowledgment that the love for Harry Potter is so ubiquitous that this artifact makes sense. We all love Harry Potter! And I love the collision of literature and real life. And this trolley sculpture is so funny, so playful.

How could I dwell on this happiness? One of my resolutions is to Find an area of refuge, and I’ve spent quite a lot of mental energy, in the last few days, fantasizing about what delightful surprises I would plant around New York City, in the manner of the Kings Cross trolley.

All my examples comes from beloved classics of children’s literature; it would be just as fun to have examples from adult fiction, but I couldn’t think of any.

This is what I would install:

From Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, in Central Park: a giant peach pit, with a door and a nameplate reading “James Henry Trotter.” I’m actually surprised this doesn’t already exist.

From E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: a book bag tucked behind a drape behind a statue from the Middle Ages. And also in the Met…

From Jacqueline Preiss Weitzman’s You Can’t Take a Balloon into the Metropolitan Museum: a yellow helium balloon tied to the outside stair railing. This would be so inexpensive and fun!

From Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family, in the Children’s Room at a branch of the New York Public Library in the Lower East Side: a copy of Peter and Polly in Winter, placed in the “Returns” section.

In a similar project, a few years ago, I made a long list of children’s books and where they take place in New York City. In many cases, a reader can locate the character exactly, like Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy who spies on 84th and East End, and Peter Hatcher, from Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, who lives at 25 W. 68th Street.

I used to try to stop myself from spending the time and energy on making these kinds of lists, but now I let myself Take notes without a purpose. In fact, I spend hours taking notes without a purpose. Or, I should say, without a known purpose. Why should I take the time to dream up New York City public installations to celebrate children’s literature? Why not? It makes me so happy! Taking notes is how I think, I’ve realized, and these days, I let myself go, and try not to worry about efficiency.

New York City did rise to occasion of the release of the movie of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, with a sign at Union Station.


I love New York City, and I love Harry Potter. It makes me so very, very happy to see something like this.

And now I’m off to try to think of more additions to my list. Any suggestions?

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  • The bookbag behind the curtain will never get past Homeland Security. Other than that, go for it.

  • Conor

    Gretchen, I’ve been a lurker for many months, and this post made me smile. Thanks. It also got me thinking about how I capture similar notes of unknown purpose. I’ve been using Evernote (though Springpad, etc are also available) to capture everything – great for the GTD – get it out of your head philosophy.

    • gretchenrubin

      I keep hearing great things about Evernote but haven’t tried it yet…I fear
      that if it became any easier for me to take notes, I might truly not be able
      to do much else.

      • I love this post because I think our environment is so much improved when we have more of the accessible public art. In St. Louis they installed a beautiful Children’s Garden that is as much about art for children’s imaginations as it is for gardens. It is filled with fountains and water features that they ENCOURAGE you to take your shoes off and walk around in. And I just ran to look up Evernote. I am now going to be obsessed with it. Need to install it on my phone as well as my computer.

  • I LOVE “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.” I re-read it after visiting the Met when I was a teenager and oh, it was twice as magical. I agree that security would flip out over a random backpack, but….that would be a great little nod to E.L. Konigsburg, indeed!

  • Love, love, LOVE this post. I teared up twice, first at the trolley (I didn’t know that art piece existed) and then again at your imagined tribute to one James Henry Trotter. I’d hop a plane just to see that one.

  • I think the reason that the trolley has such an impact on you is because it’s rare that something important to children COUNTS for anything, that someone gets it, even about something as all-encompassing to a child’s world as Harry Potter.

  • the fact that you mentioned ‘all of a kind family’ — a book i ready about 50,000 times while growing up but totally forgot about — made me incredibly happy this morning 🙂

    • gretchenrubin

      Go back and re-read the whole series! so, so, so good.

  • Peninith1

    Yes! I love the trolley–asserting that there IS an entryway to that other world! My happiness pastime is to sketch out ideas for quilts–I design quilts when I wake up in the night, I doodle them in boring meetings at work, I invent quilt designs to celebrate a new baby, I see a piece of fabric and think up ways to use it in a quilt–it’s like an infinite box of 64 Crayolas, there is just no end to the fun . . .

  • Marci

    I LOVE THIS IDEA! I think your list of books with New York settings would be a great travel book for children. And if you could get some public art commissioned in the process, so much the better. Many of your suggestions are small surprises, waiting for someone who knows where to look.

    We have an “elf” who lives at the base of a tree at Lake Harriet in Minneapolis. Some kind soul made a tiny door for a hole at the base and plants tiny flowers. Children leave letters and tiny gifts, and the elf responds. It makes us happy every time we stroll by….

  • LivewithFlair

    I loved “The Trumpet of the Swan” (E.B. White) when I was a little girl. Louis does stay at the Ritz, but I think it’s in Boston. I love how you mention locating actual locations of our favorite literary characters. This post made me happy! I think it’s because I instantly felt part of a community. I wonder who else loved E.B. White when they were little. (PS: The peach pit idea made me laugh. I love that book.)

    • gretchenrubin

      I JUST re-read Trumpet of the Swan! You’re right, in the book, Louis stays
      at the Ritz in Boston, near the Public Garden Lagoon where he plays by the
      Swan Boats. Now, is there really a Ritz there? or ever?

      • Betsyohs

        There’s definitely a Ritz there! Or at least one close enough that a recent walk took me from the Swan Boats past the Ritz without much effort. It’s on Avery Street, just east of the commons.

        • LivewithFlair

          Thanks! Wish I were there! I’m trying to figure out if there were ever any literary characters set in Central PA. It’s pretty barren today, and I’m trying to imagine some characters 🙂

          • Maude

            If you love Trumpet of the Swan and you live in PA, you’ll have to visit the Philadelphia Zoo!

      • LivewithFlair

        I’m not sure! How fun if there were a Ritz there! I just wanted to tell you I’ve been thinking about this post ALL DAY. Thank you, Gretchen! You remind us all what we love. My 9 year old daughter is just now experiencing all the joys of reading my old childhood favorites. She can’t stop rereading Boxcar Children and Harry Potter! I love the scope of her genre selection!

  • Deirdre

    I find this brilliant, and I know my three little boys and I will pour over a book like you describe. Please continue your list and take photos of these (as few might be able to last) and start a new book (with the blurb for each photo printed upside down or in the back so the kids could guess what title it came from first!).
    I could imagine a note in Eloise’s handwriting posted in the lobby or elevator of the Plaza, with all the buttons lit up of course:)

  • Bibliovore

    This is wonderful! I was unaware of that art — thank you for sharing it, and your joy in it!

    On your list of children’s books that take place in New York City: I’ve long thought that there should be a small cricket pagoda somewhere in Times Square (from George Selden’s “The Cricket in Times Square”). Also, if you haven’t read it yet, you might want to look for “Remember Me to Harold Square,” by Paula Danziger.

    Thank you for this spot of increased happiness in my day!

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, a cricket pagoda! wonderful! I haven’t read the Danziger book, will get
      that asap. I’ve read lots of her other books.

  • I chose the longer checkout line my local supermarket yesterday.
    Why? Because the checkout station I chose was numbered “5 1/2”, and I thought that was too cool to pass up.

  • Shirley

    I’d love to read some of the NYC-based children’s books with my grandchildren. Can you share your list? Then that list would have a great purpose!

  • BadEconomy

    Any concrete happiness advice for the millions of Americans who are unemployed, underemployed, homeless, lost their retirement, working part-time but want to work full-time, etc.?

    • JohnLevy

      I have been reading some great tips for dealing with the economic crisis in the New York Times, the Huffington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. Also, just do a google search to learn about many other bloggers who address economic issues directly and opposed to happiness in general. There are also some unemployment advocacy groups that have been featured in the Huffington Post. Godspeed, Sarah

  • I hope Eloise and the Plaza Hotel made your list of children’s books and where they take place in New York.

  • Laura Carroll

    This semester my family, including my 4- and 7-year old daughters, is living in Oxford, UK. Everyday we read a chapter of a children’s book and then set off to explore the world of the character. We’ve already made it through Paddington (and seen his statue in Paddington station), we’re working through the Alice books, and will read of Narnia, Mary Poppins, and Pooh bear while we are here.

    Tomorrow we are off to see Paris through th eyes of Madeline and Linnea. I think it has helped my girls adjust to their new surroundings, and it has made me very, very happy.

  • cmclaire

    I love the Potter Wall. I must pop back there soon!


  • It’s not set in New York, but Central Park seems like the perfect venue for a Roxaboxen (by Alice Mclerran) installation.

    And maybe a violin case with gray socks hanging out of it could pass security muster if it were displayed in the Lost and Found Department of the Met?

  • Laurie Mattila

    Any suggestions? You might be interested in the St. Paul, MN Sidewalk Poetry Project. Poems are pressed into the wet concrete when sidewalks are repaired. Here’s a link to more info and a YouTube video: http://www.stpaul.gov/index.aspx?NID=2820

  • I so would go to New York just to see the peach pit house!

  • Brock

    A Children’s Literature professor recently told me about “Storied City: A Children’s Book Walking-Tour Guide to New York City”. I haven’t read it, but heard that it is a great book for adventuring. Here’s a link to a description on Amazon:


  • Carolyn

    Oh Gretchen, we share a brain! I remember writing an essay as a sixth grader visiting NYC for the first time and recognizing so much through book characters especially from Mixed Up Files, Cricket in Times Square, All of a Kind Family, and Harriet the Spy. I grew up in Boston and had tea at the Ritz with my friends after we all read Trumpet of the Swam and we all had to eat watercress sandwiches. Just finished reading aloud Trumpet to my 5 year old son (first chapter book read aloud) – so many more fun books to share!

  • Alice F.

    When I was in college, I read “84, Charing Cross Road” by Helene Hanff, and then spent a month in London taking a theater class. I went on a quest to find the address. Unfortunately it (a bookshop) doesn’t exist anymore, but I had such fun on my obscure little trip. One of my professors actually took an interest in it and went with me, but I think part of what made it so fun is that it wasn’t something many people would have an interest in.

    On the same trip I also went (by myself, because no one else cared) to find the original site of London Bridge. The big, impressive-looking bridge is no longer there, but I felt such a thrill walking over the very boring modern bridge that has replaced the original!

    • Kim K

      went to 84 Charing Cross road too! There is a plaque showing where it was. Luckily right around the corner is a big book row area so we got to browse bookstores anyways. What a great book.
      It’s true–the modern London Bridge is pretty boring.

      • Alice F.

        Kim, when did you see the plaque? I don’t think it was there when I went (in 1992). That’s nice they have one.

  • What a wonderful post!! It makes me want to re-read many of my childhood favorites. In fact, I keep secretly dropping hints to the parents of a 9 year old girl in my building to pick up the BFG for her. I want to see what she thinks of catching dreams and what the colorful blobs in the jars mean.

    • Maude

      Stop dropping hints and go get her the BFG yourself– It will mean so much more!

      • I tried to get it at a local bookstore this weekend but they didn’t have it. The quest continues!!

  • Taylor

    What about something from Eloise? She lives at the Plaza Hotel in NYC, I think…

  • Mary K

    I find there is nothing quite as engaging or appealing as genuine enthusiasm, and your enthusiasm just bubbles off the screen as you write about this. It’s contagious! It makes me smile just to read it. (I emailed this to my 21 year-old daughter, a huge Harry Potter fan, and she “love, love, loved it”, too.)

  • Maude

    I love this idea, and was just playing a similar game yesterday… I was talking with some friends about my daughter’s love of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” and one replied… “Yes, a wonderful story about gluttony.” To which someone else responded, “I suppose all children’s books are really about one or another of the 7 deadly sins.” “Right,” said the first friend, “Goodnight Moon is a book about sloth…” and from there we spent an amazing few minutes pondering the deadly sins and books we loved. Just fabulous!

  • LOVED this post. And all the reader’s comments with their favorite books, too. Thanks for sharing! I wrote about it here http://kidscommunicate.wordpress.com/2011/02/27/harry-potter-love/

  • I think I’m finally becoming a believer about making lists with abandon. Like you, for a long time this was a guilty pleasure of mine. I tried to rationalize why I was doing it. Now I just enjoy the list making. Sometimes the list turns into something, sometimes not. It doesn’t matter. I have the feeling your list making is how you made some of the connections that led you to find the happiness in this art + literature blend. Lists can make me mindful. How about you?

  • Lriguardi

    Gretchen, have you read “Heidi’s Alp: One Family’s Search for Storybook Europe” by Christina Hardyment? I love this travel book about a mom taking her four daughters doing just what Laura is with her girls.
    I’ve also thought that Central Park should have a giant peach pit!

    • gretchenrubin

      I haven’t read that, am going to check it out!

  • What makes me extremely happy is coming across an unexpected piece of art, in the middle of a non-art world. While on a long run in a park in Waco, Texas I came upon a giant art installation being made, a grouping of anthropomorphic, whimsical huts made out of branches, with doors and windows for all to go in and out of. It was just being finished, the artist was there, as was the city official in charge of the grand opening, which was taking place in just a few minutes. I stopped my run 4 miles short, chills up and down my spine, to stop and be happy in the presence of unexpected and beautiful art. I went to the artist, Patrick Daugherty, and made sure he knew at least one person was very very happy to see his ‘River Vessels’ installation.

  • I was inspired by your post today and made my daily napkin drawing about ‘the unexpected’. I linked back to your blog. Thanks! http://www.napkindad.com/2011/03/charm-is-product-of-unexpected.html

  • Xfggxcvtycd4543

    extended to other countries.http://www.prettyherveleger.com

  • Oh, this post made me happy! Yes, when I visited London and found myself at Kings Cross, I made sure to look for Platform 9 3/4. I even asked an employee for directions and he laughed and said, “You think you’re funny, do you” before he directed me to the spot.

    • gretchenrubin

      I LOVE that! We just watched the first HP movie for the millionth time, so I
      absolutely recognize the quotation from the movie. It’s not just public art,
      it’s performance art.

  • Icecreamsicles

    assay whats assay