350 for 50

350 fo 50_2017We are very excited to present the winners of our annual 350 for 50 contest! This year, young writers were challenged to compose a short, 350-word story that included the sentence, “The sky opened, briefly.” Winners from our four age categories enjoyed a $50 shopping spree on Amazon. Congratulations to all!

Illustrations by Aliisa Lee


A Dragon’s Lesson
by Claire Xu, age 10

Inferno, a dragon with ruby-red scales, was a soldier in King Crimson’s army. She followed the same orders as everyone else : Work together, fight together, stay together. One day, when she was flying to the palace, something fell out of the sky, hitting her. Ouch, she thought. What could that be? Another thing fell out of the sky, but this time, Inferno caught it in her talons. It was a sapphire. Jewels falling out of the sky? That couldn’t be normal. She flew toward the palace.

“Your Majesty!Inferno flew into the palace, knocking aside several guards. “Jewels are falling from the sky!The king flared his wings.

“Are you crazy? Jewels don’t fall from the sky!” Inferno pointed out the window. The sky opened, briefly. A shower of diamonds fell out. The king went as white as a sheet. “Look at where they fell out,” he croaked. Inferno looked. She saw a flame with a star in the middle.

“Our ancestors,” she breathed. For some reason, their ancestors were doing this. Inferno and half of the army flew toward where the jewels had fallen. Several dragons were fighting over the diamonds.

“Quit that!”

“I had those first!”

“MINE!”

The general sighed and barked, “Stop!” Everyone froze. On the way back to the palace, they separated twelve more fights. In the throne room, Inferno thought about the jewels. As she thought about it, her mind drifted to the memory of how she joined the army. She had decided to go to the mountains, but she had encountered a thunderstorm. She had flown on, but at last, she fell toward the ground. The army saw her and worked together to take her to the palace and…Wait. That was it!

A month later, Inferno was explaining to some little dragonets about the jewels and how she had found out that the jewels were a test. “Our ancestors were seeing how well we could work together,” Inferno concluded. “All of you have to work together. It’s no good to fight over something for yourself. You have to learn to help others.”


The Tree and the Stars
By Aria Thorpe-Metz, age 11

Thwack, thwack. I woke up to the sound of axes. I opened my eyes and saw that the humans were back in the forest. They came every once in a while, cut down my brethren and left. They are convinced that they are the smartest creatures. I remember when I was just a sapling, I always marveled at humans. They are so changing they do not stay still for a moment and they are always trying to improve. I was impressed. Now I am old and I see that they do not notice things as they should. They just go about destroying everything in their wake. I have many times wondered why they do not notice these things. Maybe their ability to move around replaced their listening and noticing. Maybe they simply do not care. I know nothing in nature can stop them from getting what they want.

Sometimes I like to remember when I was a very young tree. I used to wish I was tall so I could look up at the stars at night. Now I’m tall and the humans have ruined everything. I will never be able to see the stars like I could then. The humans with all their skyscrapers and bright lights have stolen even that. The more lights they use the more stars disappear.  Sometimes even the moon seems dull.

When the sky was still full of stars, they would talk to me at night. They would tell me about the times when there was nothing on the earth but water. Until one day something changed. The sky opened, briefly. And in that moment all the life that is now on earth poured out of the stars. All the animals, all the trees and the flowers and the plants and all the humans. They all poured out of the stars in that moment. This is what the stars would tell me about before they started disappearing.  Now they don’t talk much. They just twinkle until they don’t anymore. This is what I was thinking about when I heard the final thwack.


They Always Come Back
by Carmen Bonner, age 13

The sky opened, briefly. Briefly, but literally. The clear, blue sky suddenly had a hole. And then, my best friend fell out of the hole. Barely a second later, the hole closed. I watched my friend plummet to the earth, then I shrugged and decided that I should probably see how she is. Because these things happen where I live. People disappear, but they always come back. In a way that no one suspects.

It started about three years ago. I was ten, in fifth grade. The first person to go was my teacher’s son, Andrew. Mrs. Fernsby came to school late one day, distraught and frightened. She told us that while she was asleep, she heard screaming. She rushed into Andrew’s room, and saw him on the ceiling. She joined in his screaming as she frantically tried to pull him down. And then poor little Andrew, who was three, floated across the ceiling and out the window. Mrs. Fernsby tried to grab him on the way out, but everyone knows she’s not the most graceful person. She missed, and Andrew drifted up into the night sky. Three months later, she came home to find him stranded and afraid on her roof.

And that was just the beginning. My elderly neighbor was swallowed by his petunias, and was spat out of the dirt three months later. My mom’s coworker’s car drove her into a river. Three months later it zoomed out of the woods. My cousin was carried away by an elephant, and brought back by a giraffe. Hundreds of disappearances in our city. But we’ve gotten used to it. Classmates are at school one day, and gone the next. No one cares. They’ll be back. There’s nothing we can do.

Three months ago, my best friend Jen was carried away by a rainbow. Today, she fell out of the sky.

“Jen? You okay?” I asked. She lay sprawled across the ground, unconscious. I was going to check for broken bones when she sat straight up and gasped.

“I know how to stop it!” she exclaimed.

“Stop what?”

“The disappearances!”


The Stars and Me
by William Cheng, age 15

The stale light seeped into my eyes as I stared at the metal ceiling. The mattress squeaked as I stood onto the cold floor. Unlike planets, there was no sunshine to wake up to every morning and, even if light reached us, there were no windows. That meant no chance of getting sucked into space. My cracked reflection stared back at me as I brushed my teeth. It may have been described as cutting-edge when I got the job, but this asteroid mining station was now in the process of dilapidation, bombarded by fragments of the very thing we were here to harvest.

I dropped into my chair, an action I instantly regretted. Bored, I clicked a couple screens — everything as usual. That’s what my job was, to sit in a hard chair and monitor things I barely understood. It was the only job I could get and I needed money. As children, we dreamed about the new frontier and adventures. I was naïve to believe living out here would be an escape. It was actually torture — alone, in a metal box, left to die. Sure, the miners lived here, too, but they spent their time out there. They might as well be ghosts.

I spun myself in the rusty chair when, suddenly, a blaring alarm bounced off the metal walls. Blinking windows appeared on the screen, foretelling an imminent collision. There was no time to close the bulkheads individually, so I closed them remotely and strapped into my life-saving chair. The pelting sounds grew louder. I looked towards the source as I heard one last loud hit: a rock piercing the hull.

The sky opened, briefly. For a moment, I saw the stars twinkling in the pitch-black darkness — as if to say hello. As the ship sealed itself, I sighed in relief. While my body recovered, the image of the stars lingered in my mind. If such beauty could exist in this void, in this death trap, then maybe my life wasn’t so bad. I would not forget what I saw. Just the stars and me.


As a precautionary measure, Princeton University closed the gallery of the Cotsen Children’s Library until further notice, and our children’s programming as been suspended during this closure. Until our library reopens, the blog will post once a week. So every Tuesday, please check in to see what we’re up to…from story time projects to awesome interviews!

So Happy Together

so happy together

What could be cuter then a mama and baby bunny? A cozy log house with a fold-out flower garden, of course! And did we mention the house has a “working” LED votive fireplace? Such. Cuteness.

log homeThis project was designed for a story time with author Amanda Rowe, who visited our library, fuzzy bunny ears at the ready. Scroll to the end of the post for an interview with Amanda, as well as a fabulous book giveaway!

amanda rowe with bunny ear crowdWe read If There Never Was a You, written by Amanda Rowe, and illustrated by Olga Skomorokhova (Familius, 2019). A mother bunny lovingly asks what she would do without baby bunny in her life. This book is adorable, heartfelt, and beautifully illustrated. The perfect bedtime snuggle book, hands down!

You’ll need:

  • 1 box (ours was 4.5” X 4.5” x 9”, a large tissue box works too)
  • 1 box cutter
  • 1 strip of poster board (ours was 1.75″ x 8.5″)
  • 1 bunny house frames template, printed on 8.5″ x 11″ white card stock
  • A selection of construction paper
  • 2 small boxes
  • 1 wooden spool
  • 1 LED votive
  • 1 toilet paper tube
  • 4 mini pom-poms
  • Scissors, tape, and glue for construction
  • Markers for decorating

We used a 4.5” X 4.5” x 9” brown craft box for our project, but you can also modify a large tissue box. Just cut the top of the tissue box on a hinge, like so:

tissue log home alternativeUse a box cutter to add a window and door to the ends of the box, then tape (or hot glue) a poster board handle to the top. Then decorate the interior and exterior of the log house! You can just use construction paper and markers to decorate. Or, dig around the supply closet for items with interesting textures.

log home interior Our flower garden was a bit of outdoor carpet (reused from our Seuss mini golf event). We added fabric flowers, cardboard mosaic square stepping stones, and a blue embossed foil paper pond. For the interior, we offered both construction and patterned paper (and don’t forget to add some farmed art work from the template!). Here are the furnishings:

log home furnitureThe armchair is a modified tape roll box, and the table is a circle of poster board with a wooden spool base. The fireplace is also a tape roll box. The “fire” is an an LED votive with poster board sticks attached to the front. Cut a toilet paper tube in half to create your 2 bunnies, then add ears and pom-pom tails and noses. Light the fire, get your bunnies cozy, and revel in the cuteness!

bunnies by the fireplaceBest of all, everything tucks inside the log box for easy transportation!

log home exteriorAfter the project was finished, out came fuzzy bunny ears for kids to wear home, and we also gave away 3 signed copies of Amanda’s book! Here’s a lucky (and clearly very excited) winner!

book winner with amanda roweIf There Never Was a You is Amanda’s first book! After story time, I caught up with her to chat about her process…


Tell us a little about yourself!

I’ve always been a creative person. When I was a child, I used to spend hours dressing my dolls with matching accessories and coordinating tiny ensembles. I made cards to give to people for birthdays and holidays, and I even learned calligraphy to make them look special! As a young adult, I made wedding and baby shower favors, and decorative wreaths. I scrapbooked and painted all sorts of wall decor for my children’s rooms when they were little. Creating is something I’ve always done, and writing is one of my favorite avenues of expression for my creativity. But I can’t draw, so I’m very thankful for gifted illustrators like Olga!

This is your very first book, tell us your inspiration for it!

My children are the inspiration for everything good that I’ve done, including this book. A few years ago, I was divorced, with only fifty percent custody, and my kids were approaching teenagerhood, so even when they were with me, they were often busy with friends or sports practices, and I missed them. As a mother, especially a working one, it is unusual to have free time, and I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. But I wanted to channel that time and emotion into something positive, and I started thinking about how much I enjoy spending time with my kids, and all of the wonderful experiences I would have missed out on if they had not been born. I wrote it down, and that became If There Never Was a You.

What was the process to publication like?

It was a long road that led me here. I first began trying to get published when my children were little. I was a stay at home mother at the time, and I cherished my time with my kids, but I needed an intellectual outlet. So, at night, after they were asleep, I would go to our home office and write. I wrote everything and submitted most of it – personal essays, greeting cards, slogans, poems, non-fiction articles and eventually novels.

I sold a few poems, a greeting card and a slogan, and lots of non-fiction articles. But my novels were terrible, and my essays did not get picked up. I think that there are a lot of different types of writing, and not every writer is good at all of them. So, in the beginning, you try many different things to see what fits.

I took a break from writing when I got divorced because I returned to work full-time and I needed to focus on creating stability and a new normal for my kids. When I resumed writing a few years later, I tried my hand at children’s books, and this one got picked up almost immediately. I kept writing personal essays, too, because I enjoy reading them, and those eventually became my blog posts. So, it is an interesting situation I find myself in now, writing for children and adults at the same time. But it works. I read the book to the kids, and I point their parents to the blog. Hopefully, I have something of value to offer to both groups.

The illustrations by Olga Skomorokhova are gorgeous. At your story time, you asked the kids what their favorite illustration was…what’s yours?

That’s a hard question – it’s like trying to pick my favorite child! There is so much I like about all of them. I love the bunnies playing soccer because my son is a soccer player so that page is a nod to him (and it’s adorable – bunnies playing soccer!). I also really like the picture of the mom serving carrot cake to the child, because my daughter and I like to bake together and carrot cake is a favorite treat in our house. But I’m also a big fan of the carrot rocket ship (so creative!), and that page has one of my favorite lines, “Who would do your greatest things, and who would dream your dreams?” I like the idea that each child makes a unique contribution to the world, and if they had never been born, we would be missing something important.

if there never was a you illustrated by olgaskomorokhova

If There Never Was a You illustration by Olga Skomorokhova, used with permission of Familius, 2019

What’s the most unexpected thing about holding your first book in your hands?

The places and the life that this book has led me to. I imagined an author’s life as being a solitary existence, and it is anything but. It is true that I do most of the writing alone in my home office. But even at home, I’m not alone anymore – I’m interacting with people all over the world thanks to social media. There is so much networking and promotion involved when a book is published.

I’ve been everywhere lately – schools, libraries, bookstores – and I’m meeting so many people of various ages, from different walks of life, and it’s fascinating. I’ve been humbled and surprised by the warmth and the kindness of the people that I’ve met, and I’m so appreciative of all of the support that I’ve received from libraries, schools, bookstores, and parents.

And the kids are the best! They’re so sweet, curious, and openhearted. I’ve gotten some fantastic cards, pictures, and letters from kids that are so beautiful they made me cry. It’s a privilege, writing for and visiting with children, and they’ve inspired me to write more children’s books, so I have an excuse to hang out with them again!


Would you like to win a copy of the book? We have 3 copies of If There Never Was a You (Familius, 2019) to give away, signed by Amanda! Just send a mental hug to someone who means a lot to you, then e-mail cotsenevents@princeton.edu with your name. We’ll randomly draw 3 winners on Tuesday,  April 9th. Good luck!

Princeton Writes

From left to right: Princeton Writes Director John Wereen, Carla Zimowsk, Dana Sheridan, Dianne Spatafore, and Melissa Moss

Every year, for the past three years, Princeton University’s Princeton Writes program has sponsored a staff writing contest. Well, folks, uh…this year I won the contest! So please forgive a bit of horn tooting. I put blood, sweat, and more then a few tears into my entry, and I’m a proud essay mom.

The Princeton Writes program focuses on non-academic writing and clearness of communication. They offer classes, tutorials, writing retreats, and an annual essay contest in collaboration with the Office of Alumni Affairs and the Humanities Council. This year’s contest topic was to “describe an encounter or relationship that has given you a new perspective.” The results were truly moving.

All of us gathered at a reception earlier this month, and I was invited to read my essay out loud. Which was terrifying.

But the whole gang showed up to get me through. Full disclosure: they served wine and mini cannoli at the reception.

The links to the essays are below. We also recorded us reading them in a studio (very cool!). So if you scroll to the bottom of each page, you’ll find a sound file as well. If you’d like to read more about the authors, please see this article by Adrianne Daponte.

Princeton Writes Prize:

Dana Sheridan – She Still Hasn’t Told Me Her Name

Honorable Mentions:

Melissa B. Moss – Two Autumns
Dianne D. Spatafore – Untitled
Carla M. Zimowsk – Arkadas

I often feel like I’m writing in a void. Therefore, it’s incredibly encouraging and validating when someone likes and honors your work. I’d like to sincerely thank – from the bottom of my heart to the tips of my typing fingers – the Princeton Writes program for allowing writers a chance to channel and share their thoughts. Thank you so much.


Photos by David Kelly Crow