Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood


If you build it...

There’s a book we’re particularly fond of in our house: Andrew Henry’s Meadow, by Doris Burn. We love it not only for its charming illustrations and its unbeatable story, but also because it was the book that our older son first read out loud all by himself. He knew the words by heart because we’d read it to him oh, a couple of hundred times.

It’s been out of print for decades, until recently reprinted in a 40th anniversary edition. We found our copy in an old bookshop and I pounced on it at once, drawn in by the sheer verve of the pen-and-ink illustrations and the promise of the title.

As the title suggests, it’s a pastoral utopia, but it’s more than that. Andrew Henry doesn’t just find his meadow, he transforms it into a refuge for children who are, like him, artistic, quirky enthusiasts – and most importantly, misunderstood.

The book begins with a pretty simple proposition: “Andrew Henry liked to build things.” He’s a mad genius; also, a middle child of five, who rather than bemoaning his neglected status, just gets on with things. He builds all sorts of things: a helicopter, suspended from the kitchen ceiling and powered with an eggbeater. An eagle’s cage, impractically plonked in the middle of the living room. A pulley system for his ungrateful little brothers. The book is worth it just for the Heath Robinson illustrations of Andrew Henry’s contraptions.

But his family regards him and his inventions as a nuisance, so one day he quietly packs up his building gear and leaves home. Only the dog notices.

The book has a hell of a middle act: Andrew Henry finds his meadow, and sets about building his dream house – a cosy little hut, with a landing pad for dragonflies. He’s happy. But who’s this coming through the trees? It’s Alice Burden, who loves birds, even though her farmer father disapproves – birds are a nuisance. Could Andrew Henry build her a house too? Could he what! The next page shows Alice in her treehouse, which has a balcony, birdbaths, feeding stations, and a stand for her binoculars.

And steadily, like a reverse Pied Piper, Andrew Henry attracts to his meadow all the children whose parents just don’t get them and their unusual hobbies. The kid who has pet moles and mice and rabbits. The noisy musician. The boat fan who overflows the bathtub, and who dreams of a house built over a stream. Slowly the field accumulates impeccably purpose-built houses, and becomes a village of happy children.

Meanwhile, the parents are frantic. Where are the kids? A faithful dog provides a clue, and there is a touching reunion scene, where the children are as happy to be found as the parents are to find them. After all, four nights is a long time.

The book has a happy ending of sorts. We don’t see what happens to the meadow and its buildings – I guess we can assume it’s left in place, now that the parents know where it is – but Andrew Henry is granted full run of the basement to do his building in, and his family is “always curious to see what Andrew Henry would build next.”

It’s helpful to know that the book was inspired by the author’s son and his clever inventions. When the book was written, the family – with four children - was living on an isolated island in Washington State, without electricity, running water, shops, phones. You can imagine the opportunities, indeed the requirement, for kid-generated fun.

When I heard that the book had been optioned for a movie, I was thrilled. There’s a great big hole in the market for realistic and (I hate this word but it's true) wholesome movies for kids. Zach Braff (of Scrubs and Garden State fame) and his brother, who had loved the book as kids, were writing the script. What’s not to like?

And then I stumbled across a blog by the guy who was most recently hired to direct it. It’s fascinating. He seems to get the story -- right up to this bit:

“Eventually the kids must return to the town to save everyone from the monstrous company who controls it. The ending has a real action-packed climax.”

Uh, what? No no no. I understand the need for a third act climax, but this is just wrong. It’s not just that there’s no monstrous villainous company in the book. And it’s not that bringing down a monstrous villainous company isn't a fine premise for a movie (go, Wall*E!).

Rather, it’s that the enemy of childhood imagination is usually much much closer to home, and comes in a much more sinister guise: self-regarding grown-ups with a serious empathy deficit.

Witness the story of Wifflegate, happening just down the road from me in Greenwich, Connecticut. A bunch of teenagers livened up their summer by industriously transforming a neglected, weed-strewn lot into their own wiffleball field of dreams (honestly, this story just writes itself: has Hollywood optioned it yet?). They cleared poison ivy, laid out a diamond, and constructed their own version of Fenway Park’s “green monster” wall out of scrap wood.

(NB wiffleball is like baseball, but played with a light plastic ball that doesn’t break windows).

You’d think that Greenwich – a tony, wealthy, very white town, with a dinky little downtown precinct right out of "My Three Sons" (if you’ve seen The Ice Storm or The Stepford Wives, you’ve seen Greenwich) – would have been blushingly proud of these kids. Why, our boys don’t stay inside and play Grand Theft Auto, or roam the streets terrorizing old ladies and tagging fences. They’re far too busy recreating heart-warming vignettes of the good old days.

Unfortunately, these Andrew Henrys and their reclaimed meadow encountered grouchy, entitled neighbours, who pressured the city into intervening. Last Friday, sledgehammers smashed their wiffleball stadium to smithereens.

As of last report, the kids are fighting back, in a gentle, insistent way, but the city won’t budge and the neighbours are putting up surveillance cameras. Oh, the irony! There’s nothing to see but kids having fun! On a piece of land that has been used for games, on and off, since the Second World War veterans returned to town.


The Andrew Henry film project is currently languishing in “development hell,” according to the latest director – it’s been shopped around a lot, and has yet to find a way to the screen. So I wonder if there’s a chance to revisit the script, in the light of Wifflegate? So easy to update the story in a compelling way without wheeling in some enormous extraneous corporate bad guy: just populate the town with adult busybodies and lawsuit-shy city councilors who don’t “get” kids. Only have them realize at the last minute that they’re just jealous, and that it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.


Meanwhile, the boy in our house who would be Andrew Henry is happily engaged in a week-long summer camp at this fantastic place down the road, named for the tireless local inventor and innovator, Eli Whitney. It’s run by a gentle pirate and staffed by a phalanx of eager teenagers who have worked their way up through the ranks, starting out at five with wooden train sets and bird houses, and graduating to supervising complex electronic kits and massive constructions.

It’s paradise for a kid who likes to tinker, like our nearly seven year old. A month ago, he spent a week there constructing a wooden skyscraper with a working elevator, an underground train track, a blinking light on top to warn passing planes, and (his own embellishment) a bungy jumper attached by a rubber band to the rooftop terrace. This week, it’s all about the Netherlands: he's hard at work on a watertight table-top diorama featuring dykes, boats, and a windmill with - he proudly informs me - an Archimedes' screw.

Years ago, my Japanese host father, a talented surgeon who spent his weekends on woodworking, would talk about the "brain of the head" versus the "brain of the hands." He was adamant that you simply couldn’t think properly unless you also got busy with your hands and built things. I think he’s right. I think the scriptwriters for the film version of Andrew Henry’s Meadow need to spend a weekend on Doris Burn’s island fetching water and chopping wood, and then a week or two at the Eli Whitney Museum watching kids wield hammers -- and then go back to the drawing board.

And I think the good citizens of Greenwich need to get a grip. On a wiffleball bat. And realize what they’re missing.

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