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!

These Butterflies Can Book

these butterflies can bookRecently, while in Brooklyn, I wandered into a little toy store called Matt & Juliette. There, I discovered some neat-o wind-up butterflies by Seedling. The clerk at the toy store explained that some people like to put the butterflies inside birthday cards. When the recipient opens the card, the butterfly flutters out. If it works for cards, I thought, it’ll totally work for books! I immediately purchased a pair to test out. They retail for $3 each and come in 4 different colors and styles.

magic butterflies by seedlingAs you can see, the toy is pretty simple. You hold one half and twist the other half. This motion winds the 2 rubber bands, which ultimately propel the toy skyward.

butterfly toyThe directions warned that winding the rubber bands too tightly could cause them to snap. This is true. Over the course of 20 test flights, we broke 2 rubber bands. But there are two spare rubber bands in each package, so no problem! Alas, one of the plastic hooks on the smaller butterfly snapped within 5 minutes, rendering the toy useless, but the other one held out just fine. Ready to see a butterfly in action?

There’s no denying it. It’s fun to have a butterfly sail out of a book. But the toy is erratic. Sometimes it flutters around the table, sometimes it dives to the floor, and sometimes it tears out of the book and zooms away like a bird.

There is absolutely no way to predict, or manipulate, the butterfly’s path out of book. Especially when it decides it wants to attack you.

The erratic flying made me wonder if this toy would freak out kids. So I tested it out on my unsuspecting children (ages 5 and 7). They loved it! There was no flinching or shrieks of alarm when a butterfly suddenly flew out of the book. In fact, they took turns winding it up and releasing it from their hands. This made me realize that the toy is a simple machine, and might work at a STEM program too.

In short, for $3, this is an inexpensive piece of magic for your next story time or program. Just make sure to buy extra butterflies in case the plastic breaks. Happy flying!

Olfactory Sorcery

dragons bloodEnter the realm of mystery, magic, spells, sorcery, and…smoked paprika. That’s right. Never underestimate the POWER of roast chicory! First, we made herbal amulets. Then we votes with our noses. The burning question? Which spice smells most like dragon’s blood? There was some serious sniffing going on at To Be Continued, our weekly story time for 6-8 year-olds.

We read Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones (Greenwillow Books, 1977). When Cat Chant and his older sister Gwendolen become orphans, Cat is quite happy to settle down quietly in their village. But Gwendolen is set on ruling the world, and writes a mysterious letter to a powerful enchanter named Chrestomanci. To Cat’s surprise (and Gwendolen’s glee), Chrestomanci agrees to adopt the children and raise them in his magnificent castle. However, when Chrestomanci and his constituents fail to fawn over the spoiled Gwendolen, she launches a vengeful campaign to create magical mayhem. Things get even more complicated when Gwendolen departs to a parallel world, dragging her double (a girl named Janet), into Cat’s world. It’s up to Cat and Janet to set right all the problems Gwendolen’s created. But in the process, they uncover Gwendolen’s worst plot yet – one that puts Cat in grave danger.

For the hands-on portion of our program, we made these nifty herbal amulets. You can find instructions for that project here.

amuletBut there was an additional olfactory activity! In Charmed Life (and, in fact, all the books in the Chronicles of Chrestomanci series) dragon’s blood is one of the most powerful and dangerous substances in the known worlds. It’s described as having a powerful, distinct, and horrible odor, even when it’s dried into a powder.

So while purchasing the herbs for the amulets, I also bought several strong smelling, reddish-brown spices (it was an interesting shopping day, let me tell you). In the end, I decided on chipotle, roast chicory, smoked paprika, hot cayenne, and sumac. I put each spice in a plastic glass with a label. During the program, the kids sniffed the glasses and voted on which one they thought smelled like dragon’s blood.

There was quite a lot of yelling, laughing, and carrying-on, but in the end, we had our winner…sumac!

dragons blood votingIf you haven’t read Charmed Life, or anyone of the other books in the Chronicles of Chrestomani series, I can’t recommend them enough. I love how Diana Wynne Jones writes her characters and create her magic. I love her sense of humor and her amazing descriptions. The Pinhoe Egg is a book I re-read annually, because it’s like visiting family. Conrad’s Fate comes in a close second. It’s a bit like Downton Abbey…with magic!