Seeing Spirits

seeing spiritsA quiet forest appears empty. But gaze long enough and…a fox spirit will magically appear before your eyes! No, its not Photoshop or camera trickery. It’s a simple physical stage illusion called Pepper’s Ghost (invented by English scientist John Henry Pepper in 1862). We conjured it at To Be Continued, our chapter book story time program for 6-8 year-olds. Scroll to the bottom of the post to see a video of the illusion in action!

We read Arlo Finch in the Lake of the Moon, written by John August (Roaring Brook Press, 2019). Summer camp for most kids means bonfires, canoeing, and hiking. But for Arlo Finch and his friends, it means surviving the supernatural forces of the Long Woods. Doppelgangers, menacing strangers, talking foxes, locations both in and out of time, and a mysterious object unearthed after decades in hiding test both Arlo’s courage, and his friends’ loyalty.

In the book, Arlo has a special ability to see the spectral world. And I’ve wanted to make a Pepper’s Ghost project for kids for AGES. Through an afternoon of happy experimenting, I was able to construction this inexpensive and kid-friendly tabletop version.

You’ll need:

  • 2 large tissue boxes
  • A box cutter
  • 1 toilet paper tube
  • 1 piece of glass or clear polystyrene (more on this below)
  • White card stock
  • Scissors, glue, and tape for construction
  • Markers for decorating

First, cut the lids off the top of a pair of large tissue boxes. Then cut the boxes in such a way as to create an L shape box like so:

ghost box step 1The L shape box is consists of two sections: a “forest section” and a “ghost section.”

ghost box sectionsNext, cut a small square (approximately 1.75″ x 1.75″) in the side of the box that faces the forest section. This is your viewfinder.

ghost box step 2In the book, Arlo gazes through a slipknot, a loop of rope or lacing that allows him to see and travel multidimensionally. In order to replicate that rounded view, we slid a 2.25″ piece of toilet paper tube into the viewfinder as well.

ghost box step 3 Now draw a backdrop for the wall opposite the viewfinder. I had the kids decorate a pre-cut  piece of paper or cardboard, then we glued it to the inside of the box.

ghost box step 4Next, sketch a ghost on a piece of white card stock. Here’s my tribute to Fox, a spirit from the book (and my favorite character):

fox spiritTape the ghost in the ghost section of the Pepper’s Ghost box. Though you will probably need to do a little adjusting on the exact placement, try to arrange the ghost in the center of the section. I found this gave the best results.

ghost box step 5Now for the magic! A Pepper’s Ghost illusion is essentially a reflection. For this model, the reflection is caused by a piece of glass or clear polystyrene set at a 45 degree angle in the junction of the L shaped box.

ghost box step 6During my initial test, I used a piece of glass from a 4″ x 6″ picture frame. However, I was a little uncomfortable giving multiple 6-8 year-old kids pieces of glass to take home. Luckily, I found clear polystyrene sheets on Amazon (a set of ten, 8″ x 10″ sheets cost $15). Polystyrene is plastic, lighter weight, doesn’t shatter, and you can cut it down to size with a box cutter or scissors. Testing revealed that the reflection illusion works just as well with polystyrene as glass. Yay!

The final piece of the Pepper’s Ghost illusion is the lighting. First, cover the area above the view finder with a square of cardboard…

ghost box step 7Then hinge a second square of cardboard over the ghost section. It’s important that this flap open and close. With the flap closed, the ghost will not appear through the viewfinder. But when you lift the flap, the ghost section will illuminate, causing a reflection to appear.

ghost box step 8Ready to see the illusion in action? Close the flap and peer through the viewfinder. Keep gazing through the viewfinder, then lift the flap over the ghost section. Your ghost will magically appear! I also encouraged kids to stick their hands in the forest section and try to grab the ghost. Their fingers passed right through it, of course!


This isn’t the first time the To Be Continued kids have adventured with Arlo Finch and his friends. We read the first book, Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire earlier in the program (you can see the project we did here). The kids voted unanimously to read the sequel. It did not disappoint. The Arlo Finch books are full of action, intrigue, mystery, and humor. I highly recommend them!

Most Uncommon

most uncommon

Coins, buttons, and yo-yos? There IS a connection between these three things. Granted, it’s a very uncommon connection…

We read The Uncommoners: The Crooked Sixpence, written by Jennifer Bell, and illustrated by Karl James Mountford (Crown Books, 2017). When Ivy and Seb Sparrow’s grandmother breaks her wrist, it sets off a very unexpected chain of discoveries. The siblings quickly learn that a subterranean world exists underneath their feet. It teems with common objects that do uncommon things (flying vacuum cleaners, healing buttons, lemon squeezers the shed light, for example). Ivy and Seb also learn that they are part of a family with a dark, secret past…a past that is coming back to haunt them and threaten the lives of all the citizens of Lundinor.

This book was perfect for To Be Continued, our chapter book story time for kids ages 6-9. Time was tight towards the end of the book and our summer break, so I devised these quick activities for the hands-on portion of the program.

In the book, Ivy comes to possess a coin – a slightly bent one-pence piece made of silver that warms in her hand. The coin is very significant, as are other objects in the story. Happily, I had a large bag of old coins that were donated to the library by my lovely neighbor, Leonore. I spread them out on tables, and kids got to examine them and take home a pile for their personal collections. As you can see, they were VERY intent on this task!

kids examine coinsNext came a mysterious package tied with an old brass button (buttons have healing powers in Lundinor):

mysterious wrapped packageInside the package was a yo-yo. That’s right. A yo-yo.

In Lundinor, yo-yos are uncommon. Meaning, they are weapons that create whirlwinds to fend off murderous selkies and giant grim-wolves. I loved this concept and wanted to share it with the kids. But I didn’t want it to be just ANY yo-yo. So I bought Duncan “Lime Light” yo-yos that change color as you spin them!

duncan limelight yo yoI bought these directly from Duncan’s website for $5 a pop. And because it’s currently Duncan’s 90th anniversary (wow!) they were 15% off and free shipping. The kids loved them, of course!

yo yo lights

Bananas Faster

bananas fasterThis banana’s going mobile, thanks to its CD wheels and rubber band engine! And why did we rig this fruit to roll? Four words: fusion, bananas, trolls, and technology. This feat of engineering was was constructed at To Be Continued, our chapter book story time for kids ages 6-8!

We read The Train to Impossible Places: A Cursed Delivery written by P.G. Bell, and illustrated by Matt Sharack (Feiwel and Friends, 2018). When strange noises wake Suzy Smith, she discovers an enormous, unusual-looking train in her kitchen. Suzy quickly (and voluntarily) gets caught in a fast-paced adventure in The Union of Impossible Places, a collection of unusual and fantastical worlds that can be traversed by the Impossible Postal Express train. Unfortunately, Suzy’s first package delivery goes horribly wrong when the package speaks, begging not to be delivered. This doesn’t make the package’s recipient, a powerful sorceress named Lady Crepuscula, very happy. Soon more then a few people are chasing Suzy and her friends as the true nature of the package, and what it means for future of the Impossible Places, is revealed.

In the book, the steam train is built, and primarily staffed by, trolls. And “troll technology” is the awesomely hodge podge way trolls build things. The train is also fueled by fusion bananas, which crackle with blue electricity and are a mite explosive (they also, incidentally, turn your hair blonde). We wanted the kids to experience of troll technology while also putting a banana in motion!

You’ll need:

This project was inspired by a banana car designed by YouTuber GrandadIsAnOldMan. However, we modified ours to fit the materials we had on hand. Begin by hot gluing 2 mini craft sticks across 2 jumbo craft sticks like so:

banana car step 1Next, cut a toilet paper tube in half, then hot glue it on top of the mini craft sticks:

banana car step 2This creates your “banana saddle,” which keeps the bottom of your banana from interfering with the rubber band motor. Here’s a side view of the finished saddle:

banana car saddleTo create the rubber band motor, tightly wrap a brass fastener around the center of a 5.75″ piece of bamboo skewer. You want to prongs to be nice and tight, but make sure there’s still a little room under the head of the brass fastener for the rubber band.

banana car brass fastenerCut a drinking straw into 3 pieces (two 1.5″ pieces, and one 3.75″ piece). Thread the 2 smaller pieces on either side of the bamboo skewer with the brass fastener. Then thread the larger straw piece onto the other bamboo skewer. Hot glue the straws directly to the jumbo craft sticks, then loop a rubber band onto the center of the longer straw. The underside of your car should now look like this:

banana car step 3Later, you will wrap the rubber band around the head of the brass fastener, then wind the wheel and the axle to tighten the rubber band and prime the banana car’s “motor”:

banana car step 4The car’s wheels are surplus CDs we obtained via donation from various University departments. We pushed a foam bead through the holes of each CDs, then hot glued them for extra security. Slide the wheels onto the ends of the bamboo skewers, then hot glue another foam bead to the outside of each wheel.

finished banana carThe car is ready to go…all you need is a banana! We actually went with FAKE bananas for this project (Amazon: 6 cost $11). Firstly, fake bananas don’t ripen inconveniently. Secondly, fake bananas are lighter, which meant that the cars would roll a little further.

And roll that banana car did! Wind the rubber band up and let it go…


We also tested this car with a real banana, which was much heavier. As predicted, the car didn’t roll as far. But you might be able to remedy that with a thicker rubber band. Or visit the original source of the project on YouTube: GrandadIsAnOldMan for some helpful hints. And hey! It’s engineering! Trial and error are part of the fun!


Many thanks to Princeton University’s Rockefeller College and Office of the Registrar for recycling their surplus CDs for this project!