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.

Bon Appétit!

bon-appetitMake delicious crêpes to order with this fantastic crêpe cart! Pour the fabric batter onto the griddle, add a number of felt toppings, sprinkle on a bit of sucre from your counter top shaker, then use your spatula to fold the crêpe at just the right time. The cart’s signs are printed in both English and French (with helpful pronunciation guides), so your customers can order like Parisian pros! C’est Magnifique!

We read Crêpes by Suzette by Monica Wellington (Dutton, 2004). Suzette sells crêpes from her street cart in Paris, concocting delicious treats with her batter, griddle, and spatula. The postman orders his crêpes with fresh raspberries, a child loves chocolate and banana, a dancer orders zesty lemon. Mmmm! In addition to telling a sweet story, the book is illustrated with photos of Paris. The hand drawings that overlay the photos include nods to van Gogh, Picasso, Cassatt, Matisse, and Degas. In the back of the book is a crêpe recipe, a glossary, and notes on the French artists depicted in the illustrations.

You’ll need:

  • 1 large box (mine was 4.5” X 4.5” x 9” – a large tissue box works too)
  • 4 plastic, wooden, or cardboard wheels
  • 2 bamboo skewers
  • 2 drinking straws
  • 1 corrugated cardboard rectangle for your cart’s counter top
  • 1 strip of poster board for cart’s handle (approximately 1.5″ x 10.75″)
  • 1 8oz paper cup
  • A selection of patterned tape
  • 4 small plastic cups (I used 1.25oz Solo cups)
  • 1 small paper plate (mine was 9.75″ in diameter)
  • Tin foil
  • 1 crepe cart template, printed on 8.5″ x 11″ paper
  • 1 umbrella template, printed on 8.5″ x 11″ card stock
  • 2 foam beads
  • 1 balloon stick
  • 1 jumbo craft stick (mine was 8″ long)
  • 3 circles of white cloth (mine were 6″ in diameter)
  • 2 toilet paper tubes
  • 3 circles of silver poster board or mirror board
  • Pieces of brown, red, pink, yellow, and purple felt
  • Scissors, tape, and glue for construction
  • Markers for decorating
  • Hot glue

Our cart had plastic wheels (you’ve seen in this pull-along animal, this pig parade float, and this race car post). But you can also use wooden on cardboard wheels. If you don’t want your cart to roll, simply hot glue the wheels to the sides. But if you want a rolling cart, our wheel assembly is as follows…tape drinking straws to the bottom of the box, thread wooden bamboo skewers through the straws, and stick wheels on the ends of the skewers.

crepe-cart-step-1We slid foam beads on the ends of the axles to keep the wheels from popping off, but tape works too! Next, decorate the box, the corrugated cardboard counter top, the white poster board cart handle, and a paper cup with patterned tape. Attach these items to the cart like so:

crepe-cart-step-2Two important things about the cart’s counter top! 1) Make sure it’s wide enough to fit your small paper plate (our counter tops were 7.5″ x 9.75″); 2) It’s a little hard to tell in the above photo, but make sure the paper cup end of the counter top is flush against the side of the box. Otherwise, your umbrella won’t attach correctly. And speaking of paper cups, notice how ours is taped towards the back of the cart? That’s so you won’t keep bumping into the umbrella while reaching for your crêpe supplies.

Next, tape 4 small plastic cups to the back of the cart (these will hold your crêpe fillings later). Cover a small paper plate with tin foil, then hot glue it to the side of the counter top closest to the cart’s handle. Here’s a bird’s eye view:

birds-eye-view-crepe-cartThe umbrella comes next! Cut the umbrella octagon from the template (we printed ours on yellow card stock). Decorate it with markers, then use scissors to cut a slit from one of the points of the octagon to its center.

umbrella-step-1Carefully mountain fold the octagon along its remaining points.

umbrella-step-2Cut a small slice in the top (this is where your umbrella pole will poke through). Next, slide one of the octagon’s triangle folds under another, then tape the octagon closed.

umbrella-step-3This results in a seven-sided umbrella canopy with a hole in the top.

umbrella-step-4Now stick a foam bead on the end of a balloon stick.

umbrella-step-5Slide the umbrella canopy up the stick to meet the foam bead.

umbrella-step-6Slide a second foam bead up the stick to secure the umbrella’s canopy in place. In the below photo, you can see the umbrella canopy wedged between a red bead and an orange bead.

umbrella-step-7Tape the umbrella to the stand. If the balloon stick extends past the bottom of the cart, use scissors to clip off the excess.

umbrella-step-8Now it’s time to stock your cart! Cut and decorate the signs from the crêpe cart template, and glue (or tape) them to the front of the cart. The crêpe batter and spatula go into the paper cup. Our “batter” was an old fabric tablecloth (thank you recycling program!). Each batter circle was 6″ in diameter, and there were 3 circles per cart. The spatula was an 8″ craft stick wrapped in tin foil with a colored tape handle.

crepe-and-spatulaSitting on top of the cart are your sugar, cinnamon, and chocolate canisters. Each canister was 1/2 of a toilet paper tube with a template label affixed to it. The sugar and cinnamon had little circles of silver mirror board hot glued to the tops (we used Sharpie to draw little holes in the tops too). The chocolate canister’s circle is hot glued to the bottom of the tube. Then it gets stuffed with bits of brown felt.

crepe-cart-canistersThe little plastic cups on the back of the cart are also filled with bits of felt. Pink for strawberry, red for raspberry, yellow for banana, and purple for plum.

filled-crepe-cart-containersVoilà! Your cart is finished! So, how exactly do you make a crêpe? You put the circle of batter on the griddle, add some felt ingredients, fold the crêpe in half with the spatula, fold the crêpe in half again, then serve it to your customer.

crepe-chefOr maybe it would just be easier to show you…in French no less!


This project did require some research. It just so happens that Princeton has a fantastic, independently-owned, fresh-local-ingredient-loving crêpe haven called Jammin’ Crêpes. Marissa and I dragged ourselves there to make sure our crêpe cart was 100% accurate (we, um, drag ourselves there just about every week too).

jammin-crepes-1Here’s a griddle at work. You can just see the special spatula on the white cutting board…

jammin-crepes-2The crepe arrives at your table in a beautiful, warm wedge of deliciousness. I’m trying to work my way through the restaurant’s generous menu of sweet and savory crêpes, but I keep getting stalled on their hammin’ cheese melty with seasonal pickles and mustard aioli. Mmmmmm…

jammin-crepes-3Jammin’ Crêpes LOVED the little crêpe cart! It received their official stamp of approval.

jammin-crepes-4Did I – heh heh – mention Jammin’ Crêpes makes their own nutella spread with hazelnuts, almonds, and chocolate? I think…I need to do some more crêpe research. Right. NOW.

(Sound of chair being pushed back and feet tearing out of office)

Super Sushi

super sushiToday, we’re going to Japan! This adorable sushi bar serves up a number of felt delicacies. The menu includes a pronunciation guide, so you can brush up on your Japanese while dining on maguro (mah-goo-roh) and satsuma imo (sat-soo-mah e-moh). This set was one of our most popular projects yet, with parents reporting that their children continued playing with it weeks after story time had adjourned.

We read The Way We Do It In Japan, written by Geneva Cobb Iijima, and illustrated by Paige Billin-Frye (Albert Whitman & Company, 2002). Gregory’s mom is from Kansas, and his Dad is from Japan. They live in America, but when Dad’s company transfers him to Japan, Gregory quickly learns that the two countries are very different! In Japan, they use chopsticks, pay for things with yen, drive on the other side of the road, sit on zabuton, and sleep on futons. Gregory is very worried about how he will fit in at his new school. But happily, he learns that friendship isn’t culture-dependent. Words and phrases from the Japanese language are woven into this story, with helpful pronunciation guides at the bottom of each page to aid the read-aloud experience.

You’ll need:

  • A strip of white poster board (approximately 2″ x 22″)
  • 1 corrugated cardboard base (I used a 9.75″ x 13.75″ cake pad)
  • 4 small plastic cups (mine were 3oz)
  • A selection of color masking tape
  • 2 toilet paper tubes
  • White construction paper
  • A large rectangle of clear plastic (more on this below!)
  • A piece of light green crepe paper streamer (mine was 13″)
  • 3 paper cups
  • 1 small box (mine was 2″ x 3″ x 3″)
  • 2 rectangles of white poster board (approximately 4″ x 5.25″)
  • 2 pairs of chopsticks
  • 5 white cotton balls
  • Scraps of felt (I used yellow, orange, red, maroon, light pink, and dark pink)
  • 4 strips of green felt (approximately 1.25″ x 8.25″ each)
  • 1 sushi menu template, printed on 8.5″ x 11″ white paper
  • Scissors, stapler, and tape for construction
  • Markers for decorating
  • Hot glue

First, your headband! Decorate a strip of white poster board, circle it around your head, and staple it. Done.

headbandNow for the sushi bar! The bar has two sides: the side in which the chef prepares the food, and the side in which the customer enjoys it. Here’s what a completed sushi bar looks like:

sushi setBegin by hot gluing 4 plastic cups to the underside of the sushi bar. I glued the mouths of the cups to the underside of the base. This created a slightly tapered look to the sushi bar’s legs.

base legsFlip the base over and use color masking tape to decorate the top of the bar (or just use markers). Wrap 2 toilet paper tubes with white construction paper, then decorate them with color masking tape (or marker). Hot glue the tubes to the top of the base.

It’s a little hard to see in the photo below, but the tubes are glued slightly towards the back of the base (as opposed to directly in the center). This is because you want a little more room on the “dining” side of your sushi bar.

tube postsTape a piece of clear plastic to the tube posts, creating a “window” your diners look through, watching their delicious sushi being prepared.The window should face the dining side of the base.

attached windowI used a 4″ x 14.5″ piece of archival mylar (leftover from a rare books project) for my window. You can also use transparency film from an overhead projector (OfficeMax sells it), or a piece of plastic from recycled retail packaging. Another option? Tape clear cellophane or plastic wrap inside a poster board frame.

The window shouldn’t rise too far past the top of your tube post…the tape needs to extend from the top of the window down into the tube.

taped windowAfter the window is attached, slide a piece of light green crepe paper streamer along its bottom.

finished windowAt this point, I added 2 construction paper circles to the tops of the tube posts to make them look tidy, but one little boy left his tubes open and created these awesome chopstick holders. Genius!

chopsticks optionNext, cut 3 paper cups until they stand approximately 1.75″ tall. Do the same with a small box (if you don’t have a small box handy, use an additional paper cup). Hot glue the box and cups on the “preparation area” side of the base. Hot glue 2 white poster board rectangular “platters” onto the dining side.

sushi set upDrop the 6 balls of “rice” (i.e. cotton balls) into the box. Place 4 strips of “nori” (i.e. strips of green felt) in the cup next to the rice box. The 2 oval-shaped pieces of felt “sushi meat” and 4 square felt pieces of “hosomaki filling” go in the remaining 2 cups.

preparation sideFinally, color and cut the sushi menu template, and tape it to the front of your window. Your sushi bar is officially open! To make hosomaki for your diners, wrap a piece of green felt around a cotton ball, then add a square of hosomaki filling to the top. To make sushi, slightly elongate a cotton ball, and put a piece of sushi meat on top.

hosomaki and sushiInteresting aside: the green felt we used for this story time project was recycled from the Rare Books and Special Collections Department at the University. In its previous life, it was used to cover a desk owned by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. How do I recycle thee? Let me count the ways…

But back to sushi! Place the finished sushi onto the customer’s platter, and hand them a pair of chopsticks! Our project allowed kids to make 4 hosomaki and 2 pieces of sushi, but feel free to add more.

sushi setIn the process of putting this story time together, I ran across two additional books about Japan. Both are super-excellent and…non-fiction!

Hiromi’s Hands by Lynne Barasch (Lee & Low Books, 2007)
A picture book biography of Hiromi Suzuki, a woman who became one of the first female sushi chefs in New York. The story begins with Hiromi’s parents, their journey to New York, the opening of her father’s sushi restaurant, Hiromi’s growing interest in his work, and his ultimate encouragement for her to become a chef. It’s really interesting!

My Japan by Etsuko Watanabe (Kane Miller, 2009)
An absolutely adorable picture book about seven year-old Yumi and her little brother Takeshi. Through detailed drawings and Yumi’s cheerful conversational tone, we learn about her life – her house in the suburbs of Tokyo, what her family prepares in the kitchen, what her bathroom looks like, and what a school day is like. You also learn about holidays, Japanese writing, and more!