Don’t Get Caught

dont-get-caughtNavigate your way through a laser maze, steal a bear from a snoring sleeper, and snag some hidden diamonds. Stealthiness, sneakiness, and silence are strongly encouraged at To Be Continued, our story time for 6-8 year-olds!

We read Pilfer Academy by Lauren Magaziner (Dial Books, 2016). George isn’t a bad kid, but he just can’t seem to keep his hands off his siblings’ stuff. His older brothers’ stereo, for example. Those comic books he’s not supposed to touch. The $10 on the night table. His sister’s private diary. When George is once again caught red-handed, he bolts out of the house…and is kidnapped by a pair of inept ice-cream truck drivers. As it turns out, the truck is a fake, and the drivers are faculty at Pilfer Academy, an elite school for master thievery. George soon finds himself taking classes like Stealth 101, Practical Applications of Breaking and Entering, and Intro to Gadgetry. But when it comes time to steal for his midterm exam, George discover that he feels horrible about it. Now George and his talented friend Tabitha must find a way to escape Pilfer Academy. Would I be giving too much away if I tell you the escape involves guard chickens, a pit of spaghetti, a deadly laser room, and a runaway mansion?

Story Time Task #1: In the book, George and Tabitha navigate a laser obstacle course, something I’ve been dying to create ever since I spotted this fantastic piece of fun. To create the course, we zig-zagged green crepe paper streamers on our gallery bridge. The streamers were attached with masking tape.

laser-obstacle-courseStarting at the bottom of the bridge, kids had to squeeze, crawl, and slide through the course without touching a single “laser beam.” I stood nearby, making “Zzzzzt!” laser noises at key moments.

navigating-the-lasersStory Time Task #2: George’s midterm exam involves stealing a teddy bear from a sleeping toddler. I grabbed a bear puppet, flopped on some pillows, closed my eyes, and started snoring wildly.

dr-dana-snoresOne by one, the kids had to sneak up and grab the bear without me noticing them (and they were quite astonishingly good at this). To increase the challenge, sometimes I would randomly thrash around in my sleep, throw the bear around, or grab it tightly to my chest.

stealing-the-bearStory Time Task #3: The diamond hunt. Pilfer Academy is a massive Gothic mansion with arches, spires, and stained-glass windows. I thought it would be fantastic to immerse kids in a similar environment, so we headed over to one of my favorite places, the Chancellor Green Rotunda.

chancellor-green-rotundaThis beautiful room was once the original library for Princeton University. Now it’s a study space for the Andlinger Humanities Center. Here’s a shot of its elegant stained-glass dome.

rotunda-skylightOn this particular afternoon, however, the room was full of hidden diamonds!

bag-of-diamondsI found these acrylic diamonds in the wedding section of Michaels Craft store. A $5 pack contained over 75 diamonds of assorted sizes (from 0.75″ to 1″). I hid the larger diamonds in various locations in the room.

diamond-in-windowSometimes I got a little sneaky. Can you spot the diamond in the wood paneling below?

diamond-in-wooden-panelOne by one, kids went searching for diamonds in the room. Once you found two diamonds, it was another person’s turn to search. And you had to be completely silent while searching!

search-for-diamondsAt the end of the program, each kid got to take home a little drawstring bag with some diamonds in it. Score!

This book was a terrific read-aloud, and we had a total blast with the activities – but it gets even better. Last weekend, the Princeton Public Library held their annual Children’s Book Festival, and guess who I got to meet?

lauren-magazinerThat’s right! Lauren Magaziner herself! Totally rocking a bandit mask, I must say. Thanks for the fantastic book Lauren. We absolutely loved it.

p.s. – Total props for using the word “collywobbles” in your book. The kids didn’t believe it was an actual word. We looked it up in the dictionary!

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!


ian walks the dogQ: In the background of your story time photos, I always see amazing stuff like a cross section of a house, a big wall of book, and a giant tree??? What is that? Can you give us a tour?

Sure! That fantastical landscape you’re seeing behind Ian and his box dog is Bookscape, the Cotsen Children’s Library’s public gallery. You might be surprised to learn that while Cotsen is technically a library, the “library” part of it contains our rare books and special collections. We don’t, for example, have circulating copies of books like public libraries. We do, however, have reading copies of books available in the Bookscape gallery. And like our programming, Bookscape is open to the public and free of charge. Ready for a tour?

bookscape-entrywayThe Cotsen Library opened its doors in 1997. Back then, its public gallery looked a little different. But in 2002, architect James Bradberry, artist Judson Beaumont, and Cotsen staff collaborated to create the now-iconic Bookscape.You enter Bookscape through a topiary garden. In the below image, you can see that garden from another angle. The giant glass wall of books you see rising in the background is a 3-story rare books vault. And that’s only about 1/5 of our collection!

topirary-gardenI love the inlay on the floor of the garden. Not only is it beautiful, it also made a great fire pit for a camping story time (you can just see it underneath all the construction paper fire and cotton ball marshmallows).

roasting marshmallowsPast the garden, you find yourself in a little house. Stretched across one side of the house is a fireplace.

fireplaceSee the black railing on the top of the house? That marks the perimeter of a little hidden room. You climb the bookshelf stairs on the left and unlock a trap door to gain access to the room. We currently use it for office storage. But sometimes, I climb up there to launch UFO or two.

Above the house’s fireplace is a clock. A closer look reveals that it tells Princeton, Cinderella,13 Clock, and Connecticut Yankee time.

mantle-clockThe bookshelves that flank the fireplace are stocked with wooden books. Many of them have tongue-in-cheek titles, courtesy of the Cotsen staff.

wooden-booksHere are just a few titles:

The Feline in the Fedora
Fly Through Your O.W.L.S by H. Granger
Just So-So Stories
Step-Mommy Dearest
Dare to Be Different by U. Duckling
Richard’s Scariest Word Book Ever
From the Mixed Up Files of Enron
Ramona Quimby, Age Eighty
Effective Communication by Amelia Bedelia
Goldilocks: My Story
Never-Never Land on Pennies a Day
Strega No-No
The Very Hungry Multinational Conglomerate

To the left of the fireplace is a cozy study booth. Often, this is where I’ll find Princeton University students reading, writing, and working on their laptops.

wooden-boothOpposite the fireplace is the “study.” Here you’ll find bookshelves and big, squashy leather coaches. This is also the chapter book section of the gallery.

living-roomOver the years, I’ve used the bookshelves for hiding things during scavenger hunts, or for holding items like this orange mailbox during a mailman story time.

orange mailbox

Not too far from the house is our wooden puppet theater. I can’t tell you how much use this gets! The theater has a puppet storage bin built into the back (I buy animal and insect puppets from Folkmanis), and an extra-deep stage so puppeteers can comfortably rest their elbows during performances. The velvet curtains slide back and forth on a rod. Best of all, our puppets are multilingual! I’ve heard performances in English, French, German, Japanese, Hebrew, Italian…

puppet-theaterOutside the house, in the back of the gallery, is our bridge, wishing well, and bonsai tree.

bookscape-tourThe bridge is prime toddler territory. They love to test out their walking skills on its gentle slope.

gallery-bridgeBut the bridge also comes in handy when you need a train tunnel during story time!

tunnel-stop-croppedThe wishing well is next to the bridge…

wishing-wellThere’s an entrance to the well on the right – it’s shaped like a jagged crack. Look closely in the above photo and you’ll see the water “escaping” from the right side of well and flowing under the bridge. It ends in this cute little koi pond.

koi-pondWe’ve certainly done a lot of fishing and splashing in the pond at story time. It’s also a popular location for Vikings and Pirates to search for coins!

coin claimIn the back right-hand corner of the gallery is our giant bonsai tree.

bookscape-treeThe tree has two floors. The ground floor can comfortably fit a family or a group of kids. There are 3 alcoves for picture book storage, and big puffy floor pillows.

ground-floor-of-treeWhen our To Be Continued chapter book program is in session, I bring out even more floor pillows and we spread out!

to be continued in cotsenCurling along the back of the tree is a staircase that leads to a small upstairs room and another pair of comfortable pillows.

second-floor-of-treeBoth tree rooms have graffiti carved into the walls by literary characters. Here’s my favorite:

tree-graffitiThe back left-hand corner of Bookscape isn’t the most glamorous area of our gallery, but it’s certainly the place closet to my heart. It’s our program area.

program-areaThis is where the magic and the mess happens.

tiger talesThere are lots of other little touches and surprises in our gallery, but I won’t reveal them all. You’ve got to come and discover them for yourself! Ten years ago, when I was interviewing for my job at Cotsen, I walked into the gallery and was overwhelmed with emotion. Yes, I had seen pictures of Bookscape online, but they didn’t prepare me for what it felt like to be fully immersed in the gallery. I silently swore that if I got the job, I would do my best to create programs that would match the love, care, and consideration that went into designing this amazing space for kids.

gardenIf you’d like to see a little video the University made about our space, and meet some of the students who work here, you’ll find it here!