Totally Random

Writers! Get ready for something TOTALLY random, because this handy-dandy machine, constructed out of a simple pasta box, could house the perfect prompt for your next story. Pull the cardboard tab, and your prompt will drop out, ready to be elaborated upon!

You’ll need:

  • 1 pasta box with window
  • A box cutter
  • A bit of cardboard or poster board
  • A set of writing prompts
  • Scissors and tape for construction
  • Markers for decorating

This budget-friendly pasta box project was inspired by a mini claw machine in my own house, which is also stocked with writing prompt scrolls:

Why do I have a mini claw machine in my house? The short answer is: the pandemic. The long answer is that my kids and I didn’t take our annual beach vacation last summer. We always spend a couple days in Cape May, including fun evenings at the Wildwood boardwalk. It’s our one and only vacation each year. It didn’t happen, and spirits were low. So I surprised them with a boardwalk in my studio, which we visited nightly:

I had tabletop versions of our favorite games (claw machine, air hockey, skee ball). There was a mini roller coaster, remote control mini bumper cars, and balloon darts. I also decorated the room with string bulbs, flashing party lights, and blasted three kinds of music from three different places in the room (techno, pop, and calliope classics).

To be sure, this amount of stuff was a splurge for me. However, the most expensive item (the claw machine) is currently enjoying a second life as a writing prompt dispenser. Oh, and the remote control bumper cars have resolved many a sibling fight (TRIAL BY BUMPER CARS! THIS IS THE WAY!).

To make your own random prompt generator, you’ll just need an empty pasta box with a window! Use a box cutter to cut an opening in the front of the box, close to the bottom. This is where the prompt will slide out. Above that, cut a slot with a little, folded down ledge:

Next, slide a piece of cardboard (or poster board) into the slot so it rests on top of the ledge. This is the cardboard “floor” that holds the prompts in place inside the box. Make sure the cardboard extends well past the ledge, so kids can pull and push it back easily:

You’ll also need to tape a matching ledge inside the box to hold the cardboard floor steady (otherwise, the pile of prompts will just drop out). You can see the little white cardboard ledge I taped inside my pasta box below:

Finally, make your prompt scrolls! Here’s a list Katie and I put together to get you started. Just make sure the scrolls are thin enough to be removed from the bottom of your box! Slide the cardboard floor into place, and load the scrolls into the box from the top. Done!

To operate, pull the cardboard floor slowly outward until a single scroll drops down. Then push the floor back in. Grab your prompt, unroll it, and get writing! Reload new prompts into the top of the box as needed. You can also add a facade on the front of the box…just make sure it doesn’t cover your ledge or your windows:

If you would like some feedback on that fabulous story, we have an email editing service here, as well as a one-on-one Zoom program here. And 50 zillion bonus points if you recognized the final writing prompt on our list…yup, it’s from our annual 350 for 50 writing contest, which will be happening again this spring! So stay tuned!

Coloring Feathers

This week libraries, archives, and cultural institutions around the world are sharing free coloring sheets and books based on their amazing collections. Hosted by The New York Academy of Medicine, the #ColorOurCollections archives is up year round, and the 2021 edition features 95 institutions from around the world, including the Princeton University Library!

The library’s “Coloring Feathers” pages were selected by Jennifer Cabral-Pierce, and are part of “Capturing Feathers,” her fantastic digital exhibit. It celebrates a collaboration between Princeton University Library and the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. Together, they worked to digitize and study the personal journals of ornithologist Charles H. Rogers (1888-1977).

In honor of the “Coloring Feathers” theme, Katie and I also selected some blog bird posts we love, utilizing materials you can find at home. Note: If you don’t have feathers handy, just fringe some paper!

An easy-to-assemble bird puppet with fantastic flapping wings:

spring chicken

Our ever popular wrist parakeet (and an owl version for all you wizarding fans):

perfect parakeets

A hilarious hide-and-seek duck game in your own home:

fridge duck_4

A reading birdy on a perch (birdcage optional if you have pipe cleaners around!):

tweet-reading-is-sweet

Or, how about a snack worthy of a swan?

the snack of the swan 3


Coloring page is from Physica Sacra, (ca. 1731-1735), vol. 1, page 642, Princeton University Library Collection Treasures of Rare Book Division, EX Oversize 5366.816q, Rare Book Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

Puppy Post!

Dogs truly are a person’s best friend. But what happens when a dog desperately needs a new person to love and call their own? Why not say it with this postbox and letter set, designed by Katie, and delivered by a very special addition to her family!

We recommend reading Can I Be Your Dog?, written and illustrated by Troy Cummings (Random House, 2018 – read here by Read Aloud Book Family). Arfy is a homeless dog searching for a new family to love. He sends charming letters to several families living on Butternut Street, but he always gets turned down and sent away. Until one day, Arfy gets his own piece of mail from someone who was looking for a dog, just like him!

You’ll need:

  • 1 small tissue box
  • Construction paper
  • A box cutter
  • Ribbon (or string)
  • Scissor and tape for construction
  • Markers for decorating

Katie followed the same design concept for the mailbox we created for this storytime project, with some minor modifications. Cut approximately 1″ off the top of a small tissue box, as well as a door in one side. Next, use construction paper to cover the box and add a rounded top with a mail slot. Use additional pieces of construction paper to create letters for the box!

In order to make this project puppy post-friendly, Katie omitted the door handle and foam bead feet. Instead, she cut 4 small slits on the the bottom of the box and thread the ends of 2 pieces of ribbon (each approximately 20″ long) through the slits like so:

Now, four loose ends of ribbon will be sticking out of the bottom of the box. Tie those ends around your dog’s harness (or around their body) and trim off the extra.

Drop a letter into the mailbox, and send them off to deliver the special note!


The handsome pooch starring in this post is Katie’s new furry friend, Finley! Finley is a rescue dog from the great state of Texas. He’s settled in comfortably into his new house in New Jersey with Katie and her family. He has a “ruff” life, that’s for sure.

If you don’t have a dog in your house who is willing to wear a Puppy Post mailbox, that’s totally okay! You can simply enlist a favorite stuffed animal to deliver the letters… announcing the inaugural ARMADILLO AIRMAIL!