Most Influential

Bunny Salad courtesy of Betty Crocker and General MillsQ: What books inspired you to do the creative things you do today?

A lot of children’s books have influenced me as a reader, writer, educator, and artist. Some of my childhood favorites have even shown up on the blog (here and here!) But if you’re specifically asking about creativity, there IS one book that towers above all others like a yellow-and-white striped Everest. It’s not a picture book. It’s not a chapter book. It’s not even a fiction book. It’s a cookbook. Betty Crocker’s New Boys and Girls Cookbook to be exact (Golden Press, 1965).

Betty Crocker's New Books and Girls Cookbook image courtesy of Betty Crocker and General MillsI would look at this book for hours. I would slowly flip the pages, eagerly anticipating the arrival of my favorite section. Can you guess which one it was? Yup. “Cookies, Cakes, and Other Desserts.” Here is the cake of my childhood dreams:

Enchanted Castle Cake courtesy of Betty Crocker and General MillsOh where do I start? I was wholly enthusiastic about cake (and those pink pillow mints – wow, do they even make those anymore?). But even more, I loved that someone had taken food and sculpted it into something imaginative and fantastical. Then fearlessly added non-edible items (such as the toothpick drawbridge chains) to complete the picture. Also, they didn’t just photograph the cake on a table. They set the scene with grass, a shiny moat, and a blue sky with cotton ball clouds. And how about this beautiful creation…

Ice Cream Flower Pot courtesy of Betty Crocker and General MillsIt’s an “Ice Cream Flower Pot.” A waxed paper cup, ice cream and crushed cookie “dirt,” candy leaves, and a frigging lollipop flower! You can put lollipops and ice cream together and make it look like a flower pot? My mind was officially blown.

Also earth-shattering was the realization that you could use food to make images of, say, animals parading around a “Circus Cake” (did you notice the little cashew feet and red licorice knot tail on the pig?).

Circus Cake courtesy of Betty Crocker and General MillsThose wild and crazy Betty Crocker bakers even used holiday-specific candy…on cakes that were totally unrelated to that particular holiday! Like candy canes on a 4th of July “Drum Cake”:

Drum Cake courtesy of Betty Crocker and General MillsThis taught me that you could look at an object, even a familiar one like a candy cane, and see it used for a different purpose or in a different context. That, my friends, is a pretty abstract lesson to be learned from a cake. I still want to eat those cherries too.

While I did spend an inordinate amount of time pouring over the cookbook’s dessert sections, there was one recipe that caught my eye in the “Salads and Vegetables” section:

Bunny Salad courtesy of Betty Crocker and General MillsOf all the time I spent looking at this book, I only made one recipe from it. One! It was “Bunny Salad.” I begged my mom for the ingredients and proudly assembled this spectacular dish. It was awesome. I had created! I also learned that, alas, I didn’t like cottage cheese very much.

Interestingly, I’m not the only person who was affected by this cookbook in childhood. Cece Bell mentioned it in an interview with Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blogger Jules Danielson. She specifically cites the “Enchanted Castle Cake” of my dreams, too! If I ever hang out with her, I’m baking one and bringing it with me (pssst! if you’d like to see our story time project for Cece’s book, Itty Bitty, go here).

One final Betty Crocker’s New Boys and Girls Cookbook connection for you. The cookbook features illustrations as well as photographs. I was obsessed with this one in particular:

Red Devil Sundae Topping courtesy of Betty Crocker and General MillsWhen it came time to dress my toddler for Halloween 2009, what costume did I choose?

Halloween devilCoincidence? I don’t think so.


Book images courtesy of Betty Crocker and General Mills. Many thanks for allowing me to use the images, and for being such an inspiration.

Headgear with Major Attitude Problems

headgear with attitude problemsNot in the mood to say please, thank you, or wait your turn in line? Are you grabbing stuff that isn’t yours, refusing to share, and not listening to others? This rude behavior could describe you. Or it could be your HAT.

We read Rude Cakes by Rowboat Watkins (chronicle books, 2015). Rude cakes are just that. Rude. They never say please or thank you. They take things that don’t belong to them, refuse to listen, don’t wait their turn, and never share. Interestingly, giant cyclopses absolutely LOVE rude cakes….to wear as jaunty hats of course (what else would they do with cake?). When a rude cake finds itself unceremoniously hoisted onto the head of a giant cyclops, it’s feeling pretty grumpy. And get this – giant cyclopses are perfectly behaved. They say thank you and please. They share and wait their turns in line. After a day of observing nothing but good behavior, the rude cake/hat finally learns to say please (as in “Please. I’m not a hat. I’m I tired cake, and I would like to go to bed now.”).  Perhaps being polite has its benefits after all!

You’ll need:

  • 1 plastic hat
  • A strip of poster board (mine was 6″ x 25″)
  • 1 standard-sized paper plate
  • Cake decorating supplies (more on those below!)
  • cake eyes and mouth template, printed on 8.5″ x 11″ card stock
  • Scissors, tape, and glue for construction
  • Hot glue

We used “Neon Happy Birthday Derby Hats” from Oriental Trading Company ($7.50 a dozen). Oriental Trading also sells child-sized black plastic top hats ($7 a dozen). Those work too!

cake hat step 1Circle a strip of white poster board around the crown of the hat and attach it with tape. You don’t want your cake hat to be towering above your head, so our poster board strips were just 6″ tall. Additionally we offered the poster board in 3 different color choices: white, pink, or brown.

cake hat step 2Next, cut a paper plate to fit the top of the poster board circle, then attach it with tape or hot glue.

cake hat step 3Time to decorate! We cut a number of scalloped icing drips from white, pink and brown construction paper. We also offered crepe paper streamers, patterned tape, pipe cleaners, cotton balls, and assorted pom-poms.

When the decorating is done, cut a mouth from the template and attach it to your cake (you decide – is your cake smiling or frowning?). Attach the eyes as well, using a black maker or dot stickers to add pupils. Finish the look with ric rac ribbon eyebrows.

cake hat step 4We had sheets of tissue paper available for those who needed to make their hats a little more snug. But I have to share the following innovation with you – a pipe cleaner hat strap and jaunty tissue paper cape. May I present…the most dapper…Captain Cake!

captain cake

Fantasta-licious Factory

happy ownerMove over Charlie Bucket! How would YOU like to own your very own candy factory that produces amazing candies, sweets, and chocolates?

candy line upIn addition to its fanciful decor and delectable goodies, this candy factory has a working conveyor belt. Ingredients go in, delicious candy comes out!

conveyor belt candyWe read If I Owned a Candy Factory, written by James Walker Stevenson and illustrated by James Stevenson (Greenwillow, 1989). A little boy imagines what he would do if he had a candy factory. First, he would write a letter to all his friends and ask “What kind of candy do you like best?” and “What day is your birthday?” On their birthdays, kids are invited to the factory to get their favorite kind of candy…gumdrops, red lollipops, licorace, etc. Eventually, the candy factory would open its doors so all the kids around the world could come and enjoy a treat! It doesn’t get any sweeter than that.

You’ll need:

  • 1 box (mine was 4 ½” X 4 ½” x 9”)
  • box cutter
  • 6 toilet paper tubes
  • A selection of color masking tape
  • 1 strip of tagboard (mine was 3.75″ x 14″)
  • 1 jumbo craft stick (mine was 1.75″)
  • factory template, printed on 8.5″ x 11″ white card stock
  • A selection of patterned paper
  • Cotton balls (I offered white, blue, yellow, and pink)
  • An assortment of pipe cleaners
  • A selection of embossed foil paper or plain foil paper
  • A selection of drinking straws
  • A selection of craft ties
  • A selection of metallic (and/or regular) ribbon
  • 1 medium square of brown stiffened felt
  • 2 small pieces of tin foil
  • wooden coffee stirrer
  • 3 small squares of self-adhesive foam – all the same color
  • 2 tiny squares of kitchen sponge
  • 1 mini pom-pom (mine was 0.5″)
  • Scissors and tape for construction
  • Markers for decorating
  • Hot glue

Begin by using a box cutter to create openings in the short sides of the box (my openings were approximately 3″ x 4″).

sides of factoryNow use color masking tape to secure toilet paper tubes to the outside of each opening. Wrap the tape all the way around the bottom of the box to make the tubes extra secure.

belt 1Next, hot glue additional toilet paper tubes on the inside of the box. These are the “internal rollers” for the conveyor belt, and will help keep the belt steady and on track.

belt 2We will now pause this project to say a few words about the moveable conveyor belt. The belt is actually a strip of tagboard with a craft stick attached to it. The craft stick acts as the “lever” that moves the tagboard strip back and forth.

leverHere’s what the conveyor belt looks like inside the factory (minus the candies of course – we’ll get to that step later).

belt in factoryThe size and length of your conveyor belt will vary according to the size of your box (my box was 9″ long and my conveyor belt was 14″). Your conveyor belt must be long enough to make the ingredients “disappear” into the factory and reappear as finished candies on the other side. It also needs to stay on the rollers and not fall into the box.

So we played around with a few conveyor belt prototypes and here’s what we finally came up with.

First, place the belt into the factory, letting it rest on top of the toilet paper tube rollers. Now slide the belt all the way to the left until the right side of the belt reaches the beginning of the right-hand “internal roller.” Make a mark on the left side of the belt.

It was hard to get a good shot of this step, so I marked the end of the belt with purple masking tape to give it more visibility. In the photo, it sort of looks like the end of the belt and the mark are inside the box. They’re not. They’re definitely outside the box.

belt position 1Repeat on the other side. The result will look like this. A belt with two marks on it.

belt position 2Now use the box cutter to make a slit right between the two marks. The slit needs to be wide enough for your jumbo craft stick to slide into snugly.

belt position 3Make 3 “x” marks on each end of the belt. This shows kids exactly where they need to place their candy in order to get the factory illusion to work.

belt position 4Insert the jumbo craft stick into the slit. You might want to add a little hot glue at the base to make it extra secure.

craft stick in beltPlace the belt back inside the factory. The craft stick should be poking out of the place where the box’s lid tucks into the box.

belt in factoryWe noticed that the belt was still in danger of coming off the rollers (especially if you get over-enthusiastic and whip it back and forth). So we added one more security measure.

Move the craft stick all the way to the left, until you see the last “x” on the belt. Put a piece of tape to the left of the craft stick to keep it from going any further.

x mark 1Repeat on the right side.

x mark 2The belt is secure, time to decorate the factory! Color the sign and windows on the template and tape or glue them to the factory. Wrap 2 toilet paper tubes with patterned paper and hot glue them to the roof of your factory as smoke stacks.

If you’d like smoke to come out of your stacks, pull a cotton ball apart, then push a pipe cleaner through it. Tape one end of the pipe cleaner inside the smoke stack.

smokeOne artistic mother and daughter team made delicious swirl smoke using two cotton balls twined together. Is this not completely awesome?

twirly smokeOther decorative touches included foil paper “solar panels,” drinking straw pipes going in random directions, pipe cleaners for “icing” and/or candy cane flourishes, and some craft ties and ribbon. I also offered some glittery plastic cocktail stirrers (located in the paper goods section at Target).

factoryThe factory is all set. It’s finally time to manufacture some candy! We prepped all the little bits needed for this part of the project in advance, then put them in plastic cups so each kid would have everything at his/her fingertips.

Here are the cups, sitting on my trusty story time project book cart (which you might remember seeing in an oh-so-unusual format in my very first post).

prepped cupsRemember, you’re making 6 candy items for your conveyor belt. The “raw ingredient” set (pictured below on the left) and the “finished product” set (pictured on the right).

candiesCHOCOLATE BAR: For the “raw ingredients,” hot glue three tiny squares of stiffened brown felt to a small piece of tin foil. For the “finished” chocolate bar, wrap a small rectangle of stiffened brown felt with tin foil (leave a little chocolate peeking out the top). Then use patterned paper to create a label for your chocolate bar.

chocolate barLOLLIPOP: The “raw ingredients” are a square of self-adhesive foam and a small piece of a coffee stirrer. For the “finished” lollipop, cut 2 matching circles from self-adhesive foam. Peel the back off 1 circle and stick a piece of a coffee stirrer to it. Peel and stick the other circle and press it on top of the first circle. Add lollipop swirls with a Sharpie marker.

lollipopCAKE: For the “raw ingredients,” use a small square of sponge and a bit of cotton ball. For the “finished” cake, hot glue a bit of cotton ball on top of a small square of sponge, then hot glue a mini pom-pom cherry on top.

cakeAll that remains is hot gluing the candy to the conveyor belt (even though some kids decided to leave their candy loose). Remember to put the ingredients and the finished candy on the belt in the right order. We had some chocolate squares emerge as lollipops at first, but after a little trial and error, the kids worked it out.

And there you have it. You are now the proud owner of a candy factory! Just don’t eat too many sweets, or this might have to be the subject of your next story time!