Natty Nessie Neckwear

nessie-neckgearNever has a Loch Ness Monster sighting had so much style! Customize a super-long Nessie scarf, then circle the scarf on the floor to create a tossing game that involves…believe it or not…a bowl of oatmeal!

We read The Luck of the Loch Ness Monster: A Tale of Picky Eating, written by A.W. Flaherty, and illustrated by Scott Magoon (Houghton Mifflin, 2007). Little Katerina-Elizabeth is going to visit her grandmother in Scotland, and it’s her very first time traveling alone on a big ocean liner. Her parents, planning ahead, select what they believe to be the absolute best breakfast food for their little girl. Oatmeal. Katerina-Elizabeth loathes oatmeal and promptly tosses it out a porthole. The oatmeal is discovered by a tiny sea worm who eagerly eats it and grows twice its size. The sea worm follows the ship across the ocean, gobbling the oatmeal as fast as Katerina-Elizabeth can toss it overboard. They form a friendship that lasts all the way to Loch Ness where the boat disembarks. There, the sea worm discovers that Scottish children also hate oatmeal. It circles Loch Ness, grazing on oatmeal and growing to monstrous proportions. To keep the tourists intrigued and the oatmeal coming, the Loch Ness Monster allows itself to be seen on rare occasions. But the most famous sighting is when the sea worm rises out of the water to give Katerina-Elizabeth a friendly smooch as she sails home. I won’t give away the very end of the story, but rest assured it had all the parents at story time cracking up!

You’ll need:

We wanted the kids to have really long scarves for this project, but we didn’t want them tripping over their new neckwear! Ultimately, we went with 5″ x 56″ scarves that we shaped into round heads, tapered bodies, and dragon-like tails. We also hot glued green felt fins towards the front end of the scarves (about 13″ down from the top of the head). We prepped the scarves in advance. Here’s a shot of an undecorated scarf so you can see the shape:

nessie-scarf-shapeAt story time, we gave kids a whole pile of self-adhesive foam to cut and apply to their scarves (just make sure you test how well the adhesive sticks to your felt – ours stuck surprisingly well). Hot glue wiggle eyes and a pair of 12″ curling ribbon whiskers on the head, and you’re done!

nessie-faceKids got really creative with their Loch Ness Monsters. Here’s just a few I managed to snap. This one’s got a pretty fantastic pair of lips:

nessie-1And this one’s sporting an impressive set of teeth…

nessie-2There were flowers…

nessie-3And manicures!

nessie-4But here’s my favorite. This little girl spent a long time making a color gradient down her Loch Ness Monster’s back. She did this all by herself!

nessie-5To make the oatmeal bowl for the toss game, decorate a paper bowl with patterned tape and self-adhesive foam. Fill the bowl with a handful of polyester fill. Don’t glue or tape the oatmeal in the bowl. It’s funnier when it flies out during the toss game!

bowl-of-oatmealMake as many bowls of oatmeal as you like. Then circle the scarf on the floor, step back, and try to toss the bowls into the circle.

nessie-ring-tossIf the circle toss is a little too challenging, stretch the scarf straight and toss the oatmeal over it like a finish line!

nessie-line-tossWhen you’re done with the toss game, drape your Nessie around your shoulders for the ultimate look in Loch Ness apparel.


Speaking of mysterious creature sightings, did you know that Bigfoot has been spotted twice on this blog? You can catch a glimpse here and here!

Promoting Programs

U.S. 1 cover 2007_2

Image courtesy of U.S. 1

Q: Do you have any suggestions for promoting programs on a small budget?

Sure! I’ll start with the obvious ones first, and then move on to the not-so-typical. These days, the go-to promotional mechanism is online media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogs, etc. Lower tech options are to make door signs, or put out a stack of flyers so people can grab one and stick it on their fridge. Once, for a major event at a children’s museum, I took over an entire bulletin board, adding updates to it in creative ways. I would see families stop by during visits to see what was new.

E-mail notifications are also a great ways to get the word out. We run our e-notification list through a University listserv service, but you can use the Contact Group mechanism in Microsoft Outlook (go to Contacts tab > New Contact Group):

outlook contact group screen grabI believe Google has some Group Mail options too. One very, very important thing to remember when sending group mailings? Only insert the e-mail addresses in the bcc (otherwise known as the “blind copy”) field! Otherwise, everyone on the list is going to see the addresses, which leads to privacy issues.

Press releases to local newspapers (and online news sources) are also a great way to get the word out. Here are my 4 rules for press releases:

  1. Keep it short.
  2. Include your contact information in the release.
  3. In the subject line of the e-mail, include the date the program is happening. This helps the editor file it more effectively, increasing your chances of having it run.
  4. Send the release at least 3 weeks in advance. Newspapers have crazy publishing schedules. Give them time to put your press release in place.

But my BIG hint when it comes to press releases is to include a promo photo. Most newspaper calendar listings include a smattering of photos. Nab one of those photo spots! Your promo photo does not have to be elaborate. Here, for example, is the photo for a 2007 Harry Potter event.

princyclopedia harry potter promo photoThat’s a donated graduation robe, a witch hat from the Dollar Store, and some goop I bought from a gumball machine for 50 cents. The photo ended up running in 5 local publications. How about this one for a 2011 Lightning Thief event?

princyclopedia lightning thief promo photoI’m wearing a bed sheet tacked together with hot glue, an old curtain, some costume jewelry, and a fake ponytail I bought on Amazon (which made a comeback for my Victorian Tea costume, woot woot!). That’s a paper puzzle of the Empire State Building. Oh, and I’m 6 months pregnant.

If you don’t feel like being the subject in the photo, you can always ask your co-worker, significant other, relative, or neighbor to pose. Here’s my student assistant Katie McGee in 2009. Isn’t she an amazing Alice?

princeton packet princyclopedia alice in wonderland photo by Mark Czajkowski

Courtesy of the Princeton Packet, photo by Mark Czajkowski

You can ask kids to pose too (with parental permission of course). This lad is gearing up for A Day in Digitopolis, our massive math event, which you can read about here and here. If you do photograph kids, be prepared to take lots of photos very quickly. Kids can get wiggly, distracted, bored, or suddenly shy. Also, the fewer props kids have to handle, the better.

a day in digitopolis promo photoYou can also use objects for your promo photos. When we did a Richard Scarry creative car-building program in 2015 (read about it here), I couldn’t use an image from his books, nor could I pose a person as a car. So I sculpted Mr. Frumble’s pickle car out of an oatmeal container:

cars and trucks promo photoIt took some time to make (especially that fedora) but it paid off! The photo ran in quite a few places, including a highly visible pop-up box in Town Topics, one of our local papers.

Town Topics, February 25 2015 edition

Mr. Frumble enjoyed an encore performance when we took the program to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art (you can read about that here). His final destination? Jeanne Birdsall’s studio in Northampton. I am pickle green with envy because he’s totally going to get to read the final Penderwicks book before I do. Lucky pig. Jeanne sent me this shot of Mr. Frumble happily zipping along under blue skies and puffy clouds.

mr. frumble in northampton

Photo by Jeanne Birdsall

By the way, the goat on the left is from Jarrett Krosoczka’s picture book, Punk Farm. It’s hand-painted by Jarrett himself (and as a quick aside, check out this fantastic timeline of his childhood artwork – wish I had saved mine!).

You don’t have to spend hours hand-crafting an object for a promo photo. Here, for example, is a photo for our annual 350 for 50 writing contest. I borrowed a typewriter from a colleague, put it against a red background, and voila! A lovely, bold photo.

350 for 50 typewriter pop

If you do send a promo photo to a newspaper, make sure the photo is high resolution (300 or higher). Anything lower will blur when they print it, and they won’t use it. If you’re taking the photo with your phone and it only captures images at 72, that’s OK. Just leave the image as large as possible. My phone shoots in 72 and the resulting image is 34″ x 45.” The newspapers can shrink a large, low resolution file down and still print it. But 300 is really the ideal.

If you’re having an event, starting a new initiative, or just have something of interest to the community, you can always call newspapers and pitch an idea for a story. That is how my student assistant Emily Garcia and I ended up on the cover of Central New Jersey’s publication U.S. 1. Michele Alperin wrote a fantastic feature article about the event as well, which you can read here.

U.S. 1 cover 2007_2

Image courtesy of U.S. 1

Another local newspaper, the Princeton Packet, would often (and very graciously) premiere our annual literary extravaganza with a “sneak peek” article. Like U.S. 1, they would send a photographer to take a couple of fun photos to run with the article. Sometimes, one of those photos would end up on the cover of TimeOFF, their weekend insert! Here’s one of their 2010 photos from an article on Treasure Island. Aye, that’s Katie McGee again, this time sporting an eye patch and carrying a old shovel from my neighbor’s garage.

princeton packet princyclopedia article photo by Mark Czajkowski

Courtesy of the Princeton Packet, photo by Mark Czajkowski

A word of advice…if you do decide to suggest an article to a newspaper, choose your topic wisely. Don’t call the editor all the time, pitching every single program you’re offering. Pick and choose, and don’t be discouraged if he/she declines.

One final bit of unusual promo? The windows of local stores. We have a stupendous family-owned local toy store called JaZams (here is pictorial confirmation of their awesomeness). In 2013, they not only agreed to host an activity table at our Journey to the Centre of the Earth event, they let us promote the event in one of their picture windows! Katie and I gathered all the dinosaur, geology, cave, Jules Verne, and night creature related things we could find in their store and put together a thing of beauty.

jazams princyclopedia windowIn 2015, JaZams let us use the window again, this time for our Very Hungry Caterpillar food drive. If you’re wondering who created that beautiful poster, it was our very own Aliisa Lee, artist extraordinaire.

jaZams food drive window

Food drive title and art inspired by the work of Eric Carle.

The nice thing about the food drive was that every donated food item earned the donator a chance to win that gigantic stuffed caterpillar. One generous little girl came every week with new groceries to give. Pounds and pounds. And she won, too!

I always love getting questions from you guys, so keep ’em coming!

If You Build It…

house 3 glass roomThis winter, we had a couple of intense snow storms. Whenever it snows, my program attendance drops dramatically. And yet, there are always a couple of hard core patrons who don their snow pants and brave the drifts to come to story time. This causes a bit of a conundrum. You see, some of my projects involve quite a bit of prep work (a-hem! I’m looking at you candy factory and you haunted house). So the program is prepped and ready for over 20 kids. If I do it with just 3 kids, that’s a lot of prep work going by the wayside…so…

A few years ago, I decided that if fewer than 5 kids came to a snowy story time, the previously-prepped project would be bumped to the following week, and I would offer an unplanned, off-the-cuff creative project instead.

The project I’d like to share today is inspired by the fantastic If I Built a House by Chris Van Dusen (Dial Books, 2012). The story is about Jack, a boy with big ideas for building his dream house. There’s a robotic machine that whips up meals, a bedroom at the top of a 200 foot tower, a anti-gravity room, a race track room, an aquarium room…the sky is the limit!

First, the kids and I made “blueprints.” I replicated the look with blue construction paper and silver metallic markers.

blueprintAs the kids drew their houses, I rummaged through the office for boxes, tubes, cardboard, items left over from other projects, and interesting odds and ends (including, of course, the Bling Bin). Then, out came the tape, glue, scissors, markers, and hot glue and off went the little architects, putting together 3D models of their blueprints.

house 1This house’s base is a box with a clear lid (leftover from this light box project). The architect turned it into a subterranean pond with fish! Perhaps this is our next Frank Lloyd Wright?

house 1 pond floorThe next architect went for wide and stacked, with multiple boxes for multiple rooms. I like the ladder to the second floor!

house 2She also forayed into interior design. That polka-dot couch is made out of patterned paper, pink and yellow cottons balls, and an Altoid tin!

house 2 interiorThe final house’s blueprint appeared to have a tree, a squiggle of water, and antenna. I was curious to see how the model would develop, and I was not disappointed.

house 3LOVE the fountain! And I’m not sure if you noticed that the “glass” room at the top has multi-color portholes made out of tape rolls with cellophane panes?

house 3 glass roomIf you don’t have an art cabinet to quickly rummage through, or you want to do this with a large group of kids, you could always go with Option #2. Collect a bunch of recyclables and stick them on a table. Then ask the kids to draw their blueprints from the items they see on the table (just make sure you have multiples of each item for each kid to use).

Or, you could do Option #3. Give each kid the same basic “set” of object (ex: a cake pad for a base, a tissue box, a paper towel tube, a cone water cup, and 3 squares of poster board) to build the basic structure, then have other art supplies handy to fancy it up. I promise, the results will be unique!