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!

Hot Off The (Historical) Press!

hot off the historical pressRecently, the Department of Special Collections at Princeton University Library hosted an amazing exhibit, “Gutenberg & After: Europe’s First Printers 1450-1470,” and our library hosted a special event that featured a children’s tour and hands-on activities. If you’ve ever wanted to do something related to printing and the history of the book, read on!

The Gutenberg exhibit featured early European books that were printed on the first moveable type printing presses, including the world’s first dictionary, medical texts, law books, and the big granddaddy of ALL rare books, the Gutenberg Bible. That’s me in the above photo, leading the tour.

During my talk, I discussed hand-written books before print, how the early printing press worked, and how the growing availability of printed books evolved us into a culture of reading and writing. I had quill pens, actual 15th-century illuminated manuscript pages (thanks to this program!), vellum, and pieces of moveable type for kids to handle.

Meanwhile, in our children’s gallery, we had three hands-on activities: 1) Calligraphy; 2) A typewriter petting zoo; and 3) A pasta machine printing press.

calligraphy set upFor the calligraphy activity, we purchased both traditional feather quill pens and metal nib quill pens on Amazon, along with bottles of ink. Katie printed different examples of calligraphy so kids could replicate some letters. We also had calligraphy pens and brush pens in rainbow colors. Everyone loved trying the pens, and the calligraphy wasn’t just limited to the English language…

arabic calligraphyWe also had a massively popular typewriter petting zoo. There were 5 typewriters in all, 2 working, 2 non-working, and 1 toy for the really little kids. Kids could touch, explore, and clatter away on them! Katie and I were a wee bit worried about how loud the zoo would be, but quickly learned that the sound of multiple typewriters is actually incredibly soothing (at least to us!).

typewriter montageThe final activity was something I’ve been wanting to do ever since I spotted in on the Eric Carle Museum‘s blog (see this post for my tour of their awesome art studio). Namely, A PASTA MACHINE PRINTING PRESS! It was fantastic.

You can find detailed instructions here on the Carle’s studio blog. But basically, you’ll need foam trays, a carving tool, paint, rollers, paper, and a pasta machine. We purchased the cheapest one we could find on Amazon. It was $28. Just make sure the one you buy clamps to the table

pasta machine The steps for the activity are as follows: Firs, use a tool to carve a design into a foam sheet. The tool can be a pen, pencil, or wooden scratch art styluses. The foam sheets are the same material that meat is packaged on. We bought thinner versions on Amazon (Presto foam printing plates, a 100 pack of 6″ x 4″ sheets is $15).

foam sheetsNext, roll paint over your engraved foam sheet. We used trays to reduce the mess. They were definitely helpful!

foam traysFinally, place a piece of paper on top of your painted engraving and run it through the pasta machine printing press. Peel the foam sheet and the paper apart, and you have a beautiful custom print!

pasta printing press resultsImportant! Make sure the pasta machine is set to a wider setting. As you can see in the photo below, if the machine setting is too narrow, the paint will just squish into the lines of your engraving. The wider setting allows to white lines of your design to appear.

pasta machine settingsAlso, make sure kids know that if they want to print words, they have to carve them backwards as the printing process reverses the carved image. And you might want paper plates handy so kids can transport their still-damp prints home.

What’s really cool is that some kids started experimenting with printing in multiple colors.  Including THIS gorgeously vibrant one. LOVE!

rainbow print


Many thanks to Eric White, Curator of Rare Books, for his enthusiasm, expertise, and assistance in designing the children’s tour. And to AnnaLee Pauls, for generously loaning her beloved and amazing typewriters to our petting zoo!

O Tannenbooks

Reuse, repurpose, and redecorate this holiday season! Katie crafted this clever little book tree using 6 recycled books, wrapping paper, a cake support rod, and a bit of drill work. The results? Fa-bu-lous!

You’ll need:

  • 5-6 books
  • Mod Podge
  • 1 foam paint brush
  • Green wrapping paper
  • 1 cake support rod
  • 1 corrugated cardboard base
  • An electric drill for construction

Katie was inspired to do this project when she spotted this beautiful book tree at Drumthwacket last year. Drumthwacket is the official residence of the Governor of New Jersey, where Katie proudly serves as a docent for their historical tours. Every December, local gardening groups deck the halls, and this little tree stole her heart. She was determined to craft one of her own.

Let me start by saying that Katie selected six OLD books for this project…retired editions that had torn pages, faded covers, and ripped bindings. Because otherwise we would have been cringing during the first step of the project…drilling holes in the spines of the books! Katie used the largest drill bit in the set – a 5/16″ bit to be exact – to drill holes in the center of the books’ spines. Next, she used a bottle of Mod Podge and a foam paint brush to glue wrapping paper onto the covers of the books. We went all schmancy and bought our wrapping paper from Paper Source.

While the book covers were drying, Katie construct the tree base. She glued together two, 12″ cake pads, then glued wrapping paper on the top circle. She again drilled a hole in the center of the base, then threaded a cake support rod upwards, through the hole.

If you are like me and have NEVER heard of cake support rods until today, they are metal or plastic rods and bases used to build multi-tier cakes (think wedding cakes or elaborate Kardashian baby showers). Katie found her rods in the cake decorating section of Michael’s craft store. The rods a package of fourteen, 12″ rods costs around $8.

Annnnd here’s the finished base, ready to support some books!

Since the initial holes Katie drilled in the books were covered with wrapping paper, she carefully re-drilled them. Then she threaded the books onto the support rod. Almost immediately, she noticed a problem. The books sagged down the smooth rod and flattening out! Katie quickly fixed the problem by wrapping rubber bands around the rod to brace each book.

When the books were stacked, Katie added a star to the top. This was a cheap ornament with a sparkle stem wrapped around the ornament’s loop. The sparkle stem was threaded inside the cake support rod, then the star/rod connection was reinforced by a second sparkle stem. Add a strand of lights and you are done!