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.
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.
From 2006 through 2014, as she wrote The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, Gretchen chronicled her thoughts, observations, and discoveries on The Happiness Project Blog.