Most Influential

Bunny Salad courtesy of Betty Crocker and General MillsQ: What books inspired you to do the creative things you do today?

A lot of children’s books have influenced me as a reader, writer, educator, and artist. Some of my childhood favorites have even shown up on the blog (here and here!) But if you’re specifically asking about creativity, there IS one book that towers above all others like a yellow-and-white striped Everest. It’s not a picture book. It’s not a chapter book. It’s not even a fiction book. It’s a cookbook. Betty Crocker’s New Boys and Girls Cookbook to be exact (Golden Press, 1965).

Betty Crocker's New Books and Girls Cookbook image courtesy of Betty Crocker and General MillsI would look at this book for hours. I would slowly flip the pages, eagerly anticipating the arrival of my favorite section. Can you guess which one it was? Yup. “Cookies, Cakes, and Other Desserts.” Here is the cake of my childhood dreams:

Enchanted Castle Cake courtesy of Betty Crocker and General MillsOh where do I start? I was wholly enthusiastic about cake (and those pink pillow mints – wow, do they even make those anymore?). But even more, I loved that someone had taken food and sculpted it into something imaginative and fantastical. Then fearlessly added non-edible items (such as the toothpick drawbridge chains) to complete the picture. Also, they didn’t just photograph the cake on a table. They set the scene with grass, a shiny moat, and a blue sky with cotton ball clouds. And how about this beautiful creation…

Ice Cream Flower Pot courtesy of Betty Crocker and General MillsIt’s an “Ice Cream Flower Pot.” A waxed paper cup, ice cream and crushed cookie “dirt,” candy leaves, and a frigging lollipop flower! You can put lollipops and ice cream together and make it look like a flower pot? My mind was officially blown.

Also earth-shattering was the realization that you could use food to make images of, say, animals parading around a “Circus Cake” (did you notice the little cashew feet and red licorice knot tail on the pig?).

Circus Cake courtesy of Betty Crocker and General MillsThose wild and crazy Betty Crocker bakers even used holiday-specific candy…on cakes that were totally unrelated to that particular holiday! Like candy canes on a 4th of July “Drum Cake”:

Drum Cake courtesy of Betty Crocker and General MillsThis taught me that you could look at an object, even a familiar one like a candy cane, and see it used for a different purpose or in a different context. That, my friends, is a pretty abstract lesson to be learned from a cake. I still want to eat those cherries too.

While I did spend an inordinate amount of time pouring over the cookbook’s dessert sections, there was one recipe that caught my eye in the “Salads and Vegetables” section:

Bunny Salad courtesy of Betty Crocker and General MillsOf all the time I spent looking at this book, I only made one recipe from it. One! It was “Bunny Salad.” I begged my mom for the ingredients and proudly assembled this spectacular dish. It was awesome. I had created! I also learned that, alas, I didn’t like cottage cheese very much.

Interestingly, I’m not the only person who was affected by this cookbook in childhood. Cece Bell mentioned it in an interview with Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blogger Jules Danielson. She specifically cites the “Enchanted Castle Cake” of my dreams, too! If I ever hang out with her, I’m baking one and bringing it with me (pssst! if you’d like to see our story time project for Cece’s book, Itty Bitty, go here).

One final Betty Crocker’s New Boys and Girls Cookbook connection for you. The cookbook features illustrations as well as photographs. I was obsessed with this one in particular:

Red Devil Sundae Topping courtesy of Betty Crocker and General MillsWhen it came time to dress my toddler for Halloween 2009, what costume did I choose?

Halloween devilCoincidence? I don’t think so.


Book images courtesy of Betty Crocker and General Mills. Many thanks for allowing me to use the images, and for being such an inspiration.

Worlds at His Fingertips

worlds at his fingertips artwork by keenu haleBoats float on the stars, a scarecrow waltzes with crows, a magic wand transforms a snowman, a box bursts with enthusiastic jazz musicians. These are the images and worlds created by talented local artist, Keenu Hale. Today, I’m going to sing his praises.

artist keenu haleFor several years, Keenu has been a welcome guest at Cotsen Critix, our literary society for kids ages 9-12 (you also might recall hearing about him and his awesome cartooning skills at our How to Train Your Dragon event). A few facts about Keenu: he won his first drawing contest at 18 months; he is an artist with autism; he was featured in a television interview for the AttachAvi Autism Foundation in 2016; he generously gives his time to children’s hospitals, autism fundraisers, and art festivals; he is currently an animation major at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. In short, Keenu totally rocks.

jazz musicians by keenu hale

Keenu’s draws inspiration from Jim Henson and Tim Burton. Jim Henson for his odd, slapstick humor, and Tim Burton for his dark, somewhat creepy worlds. You can see how he blends both perfectly.

class photo with frame artwork by keenu haleheadless horseman artwork by keenu halegoats artwork by keenu halesnowman artwork by keenu haleKeenu has hundreds of original characters and story lines. Take, for example, his debut comic book, Life in the Suburbs. In the story, a human boy named Timmy lives with his non-human scarecrow family. While Burlap and Cotton (his parents), are happy to live on the farm, Timmy wants to live in the suburbs. But as Timmy and his siblings Lacy and Jinko learn, moving in and fitting in are two very different things! The comic is charming, funny, and really nicely paced.

life in the suburbs by keenu haleKeenu also collaborated with his cousin to produce Queen, You Are Beautiful! It follows the life of Queen, a young girl who must deal with bullies and discover her inner beauty.

queen you are beautiful artwork by keenu hale queen image 2 artwork by keenu halequeen image 3 artwork by keenu haleWhen Keenu visits our library, we always start with an interview and a viewing of his vast portfolio. Then he does a drawing exercise with the kids. At the very end of the workshop, Keenu makes custom freehand drawings of whatever characters the kids can think of. He does each drawing in minutes. It’s amazing. Here are just a few from his last visit (including one of his own characters, Rosemary):

quick characters by keenu hale


Many thanks to Keenu for allowing us to share his art! All images courtesy of the artist.

Wand Works

wizard with wandOf everything in the Harry Potter universe, I must admit I find the wands most fascinating. Not just because they play an integral part of spell casting – they also reflect the unique personalities of their owners. Additionally, shouting in Latin is so much more exciting when waving a wand. We tried to capture a little of that magic at Wand Works, our Harry Potter event.

gray magic woodworking wand displayOriginally, the event was just going to be about wands, wand making, and wand testing. But then I started thinking about the other ways students prepare for Hogwarts. So we brought book bags, text books, and owls into the mix. And, while I’ve recreated an assortment of Hogwarts classes over the years (check out this boggart from Defense Against the Dark Arts), I’ve never managed to do Muggle Studies. We had to do something on Muggle Studies!

Here’s how our event worked. As kids entered the library, they were greeted by a table full of these awesome book bags:

accio books logo by Polly CarlsonThat beautiful Accio Books logo was designed by Polly Carlson. You can find it here, on her truly clever blog Pieces by Polly. She was kind enough to give us permission to use it for the event. Also at the table were a slew of Crayola metallic markers for bag customization:

book bag decoratingThose are 13.5″ x 14.5″ polypropylene totes from 4Imprint. Specifically, it’s the “Value Polypropylene Tote (item #103873). We tested a couple of polypropylene bags for this project, and 4Imprint’s held the Crayola metallic markers ink beautifully (it smeared on the others). Also, 4Imprint had the best prices and customer service, flat out.

Tucked inside each and every event bag was a color ticket, which lead the lucky witch or wizard to my favorite fictitious bookstore of all time:

flourish and blotts ticketsHere’s our Flourish & Blotts, staffed by Princeton junior Gabrielle Chen (she’s also the artist behind that fantastic sign)!

flourish and blottsBehind Gabrielle was a shelf stocked with copies of The Tales of Beedle the Bard, Quidditch Through the AgesHogwarts: A Cinematic Yearbook, and the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them screenplay (alas, we missed the release of the text book version of Fantastic Beasts by mere weeks). There were also real quill pens with powdered ink packets, and some adorable Harry Potter Magical Creatures coloring kits.

stocked bookshelfThe tickets were color-coded with items on the shelves. Hand in your ticket, and receive the matching item! Just in case you’re wondering, we did sort and distribute the event bags by estimated age of the child. This was to insure that a 4 year-old received a Harry Potter coloring kit, not a copy of Fantastic Beasts.

Did you notice the little cauldron with the brooms sticking out of it in the above photo? Since we couldn’t buy books, quills, and coloring kits for everyone, the little brooms were the prize most frequently received by kids of all ages. But they are way cool because they are actually customized broom pens!

broom pensThese are “Personalized Witch’s Broom Pens” from Oriental Trading Company ($12 a dozen). For no extra fee, you can customize them with 1 line of text up to 16 characters in length. We went with “Nimbus 2000.” Everyone LOVED them! In fact, the whole table was a lot of fun. It was terrific to see kids, holding books (or quills, or coloring kits, or broom pens) with big grins on their faces.

fantastic beasts funElsewhere on the event floor was real-life wandmaker Lane O’Neil from Gray Magic Woodworking. You previously met Lane in this post. In person, his wands are even more beautiful, fantastic, and magical. His table was so swarmed. I couldn’t even get near it for the first hour of the event!

wands on display, gray magic woodworkingLane also displayed his lathe, tools, different types of wood, and wands in different stages of completion. He did demonstrations, showed slides, and answered questions throughout the entire event.

lane o'neil gray magic woodworkingNot far from Lane was our Muggle Artifact exhibit, curated by Princeton University sophomore Téa Wimer. The exhibit consisted of 45 Muggle objects complete with informative exhibit labels. Below, two attendees ponder a Cookie Slicer (which, amazingly, looks just like an old school photo enlarger).

muggle cookie slicerAnd here, two scholars consider a World Checker. Nearby is a rather puzzling object on a pedestal. Kids could write guesses as to what the Muggles use the object for. The full exhibit, as well as an interview with Curator Téa Wimer, is now online!

muggle world checkerOwls are another must for Hogwarts students, so we had a table where kids could make these awesome and super simple wrist owls.

wrist owl examplesAnd now we come to the main event – THE WANDS. After much searching and testing, we settled on wands made from cooking chopsticks, hot glue, and paint. They are, in fact, very much like the wands our kid tester made for her DIY Harry Potter party.

But there were problems. While these types of wands are wonderful in small batches, we needed hundreds. The event was recommended for kids ages 5-11. Would someone poke their eye out? Hot glue is used to create the texture of the wand. Would someone burn their fingers? The wands require paint. Would they dry sufficiently? And – how messy was this all going to get?

Turns out, we solved all these problems, and everything went beautifully.

First, we bought 2 kinds of cooking chopsticks on Amazon. 13″ pointy ones (4 pairs cost $7.40) and 10.5″ blunt ones (10 pairs cost $11). If you’d like to know the exact brands we used, e-mail me for the links.

wand chopsticksFor the event, we made trays out of box lids, separating the wands into blunt and pointy sections. This was primarily for the benefit of parents and caretakers. The pointy chopsticks were definitely the most popular, but we also had many adults who were very grateful for the blunt wands. There was even some quietly-switch-from-pointy-to-blunt-while-the-kid-is-distracted going on.

tray of wandsNext came the hot glue. While we would have loved for kids to make their own hot glue designs at the event, we knew that just wasn’t possible on a large scale. So we hot glued all the wands in advance. It took us a couple months of chipping away here and there, but in the end we had hundreds of wands, and no two were alike.

hot glued wandsNext, the paint! After testing a number of different paints, we settled on Michaels Craft’s in-store brand, CraftSmart. We used their satin acrylic paint because it was water-based, non-toxic, fast-drying, and there were lots of different shades of brown. The regular acrylic paint was too dull, but the satin left a really nice finish on the wand.

finished wands, both kindsAt the event, kids selected the wand they liked from the tray, and then picked the paint color they wanted. To make the color selection easier, we made several paint choice panels out of cake pads and jumbo craft sticks. The numbers below the paint samples corresponded to the name of the colors (which were written on the back of the panel for the table staff).

wand paint panel From left to right, the CraftSmart satin acrylic paint colors are khaki, golden brown, brown, burnt orange, and espresso. Burnt orange and espresso were definitely the most popular. But all the colors looked fantastic.

You need very little paint per wand. To keep the mess down and conserve paint, we gave each kid a 1.25oz plastic cup with a little bit of paint inside it, a paint brush, and a paper plate to work on. When the kid finished, his/her paint cup and brush could be used with another kid.

the painting of the wandsThis paint was extremely fast drying on the wood, even with multiple coats. The hot glue, however, was another story. In order to dry the wands faster, we put together a wand-drying chamber out of a piece of cardboard, jumbo binder clips held down with packing tape, and 2 box fans running on low.

wand drying chamberBelow you can see the wand drying chamber in action, with the wands inserted in the clips. At the event, kids wrote their names on little bits of paper, which were clipped with the corresponding wands. Depending on how many coats of paint were on the wand, it typically took 5 – 10 minutes for a wand to dry in the chamber (15 if there was a LOT of paint).

wands drying in chamberTo be clear – the wand drying chamber was tucked behind the event tables, away from the crowds. Only event staff had access to it for obvious reasons. However, if I was to do this event again, I would definitely add a designated “Wand Pick-Up Area” to make things run even more smoothly.

FINALLY, we had an activity that I only dared dream of, but Princeton University junior José M Rico made a reality. A virtual, interactive, wand-testing classroom. It was AMAZING.  here’s a photo of Katie casting one mean Bombarda spell.

katie and bombardaAll the details of the game, as well as video and a free download, can be found here!

I’d like to thank everyone who made this event possible. Thank you Polly Carlson for graciously letting us use your Accio Wand design, student artist Gabrielle Chen for painting the awesome Flourish & Blotts sign, and Lane O’Neil for bringing his talent and wands to the event. A hearty round of applause to our incredibly creative Muggle Artifacts Curator Téa Wimer. Further applause to our wildly talented game designer Jose Rico, as well as artist Jeremy Gonclaves, who allowed us to his 3D game background.

A big shout out to our extensive team of wand hot gluers, Andrea Immel for swooping in to help at our owl table, and all the Princeton University students who volunteered their time to help at the event. Many, many thanks!