The River at Green Knowe

L. M. Boston, illustrated by Peter Boston (1959)

This is a magical book with marvelous illustrations, and none of what follows can change that.

I was in fourth grade, and we were supposed to do an art project based on a book. Like a diorama or a mobile—those were always solid choices. But I took my project in another, far more ambitious, direction. And I learned a hard lesson about the difference between how you picture your art and how it comes out.

In the book, the kids explore various islands on the river and have adventures on each. I wanted to create a 3-D model of the river, with real water and miniature islands. This would have been very cool—it was very cool in my head—but I didn’t have the tools or, crucially, the skills to carry it off.

I used a metal baking pan for the river. And grimy sand from our abandoned sandbox for the islands. I tried to create a sandy bottom in the pan and then pile up the islands so they would rise above the water level in the pan. Anyone familiar with sand and water knows this wasn’t going to work. I had been to the beach: I should have foreseen that the “islands” were going to slump into the water and disappear. My solution? I used plastic cups from an old tea set to hold the islands. I set the teacups in the pan and mounded sand inside them. Somehow I thought the sides of the teacups wouldn’t be visible once the water was in place, but water is clear.

So my awesome River at Green Knowe model was now a pan with some sand on the bottom and a few random sand-filled teacups set in it, water sloshing around them. I had eyes: I knew this wasn’t anything like what I had set out to create. But it was too late to empty a tissue box and slap together a diorama. I gritted my teeth and carried that pan to school on the bus because I had no other option.

Obviously this is a cautionary tale about ambition and overreach. And I still wonder when I picture the ideal version of something I’m creating if it’s going to end up as teacups in a baking pan. But I can also picture how very cool a model of the river at Green Knowe could have been.

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