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 week in Cape May, including fun evenings at the Wildwood boardwalk. It didn’t happen, and spirits were low. So I surprised them with a boardwalk in my studio:

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!).

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. 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!

Bookshelf Treasure Hunt

Have bookshelf, will adventure! Even the smallest shelf can be used to create clues leading to a final treasure. Best of all, this journey can be adjusted to any age level, requires no special materials, and is very budget friendly!

Before we proceed, it’s important to make the distinction between a bookshelf scavenger hunt and a bookshelf treasure hunt. A scavenger hunt involves finding a specific list of items on the shelves (ex: “A blue book” or “A book with a person’s name in the title”). A treasure hunt begins with an initial clue, which leads to more clues that proceed in sequential order to a final prize. That’s what we’ll be focusing on today. A treasure hunt.

treasure hint 2

The biggest bookshelves are in our living room, so I set my treasure hunt there. This 9 clue hunt was designed for my 9 year old daughter. In addition to books, I used objects on the shelves. You can also do this activity with a smaller shelf, books laid out on a table, span it across multiple shelves in the house, or hide individual books around the entire house. It’s very flexible! The only materials I used were paper, scissors, and tape. I typed my clues, but you can hand write them as well.

I hid Clue #1 under my daughter’s lunch plate. When she lifted it to clear her place, she immediately spotted a mysterious folded note with question marks. It read: Ready for a treasure hunt? Head to the living room bookshelves. The unicorn will start you on your way…

She immediately knew what the clue was referencing. I love collecting original art from thrift stores, so here’s the unicorn from the clue. Lifting the painting, Clue #2 was revealed, cut in the shape of a unicorn speech bubble.

It read: “My friend the dragon has been captured! Can you free him? Oh, and you’ll need to bring some chewing gum, ribbons, and lollipops for the tigers, lion, and crocodiles!” This is reference to My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett. Inside that book, may daughter found Clue #3: TIME WILL TELL. This lead her to our shelf clock with a message sneakily taped to its back:

The clue read: Would you want a little brother like this? Hint: He’s NOT sweet like his name! This lead to one of her favorite books, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. Inside was Clue #4: Third red book from the left. By the way, you might like this series! A bit of maneuvering and counting led to The Anybodies by N.E. Bode. Also, Clue #5, which was a foray into Mom’s non-fiction section: No one knows his name, but everyone sees his art

My daughter recognized the reference, and located Banksy: You Are An Acceptable Level Of Threat And If You Were Not You Would Know About It by CarpetBombingCulture. Inside, Clue #6 read: 1 shelf over 2 shelves up. Find a KINGDOM. The search resulted in The Hollow Kingdom by Clare B. Dunkle plus Clue #7: Upwards! A…B…and behind C!

So, my daughter reports that Clue #7 was definitely the most difficult one. I had to drop one hint (“It says ABC”). But it was awesome to see her start working out that the clue referred to the large letters of three book titles on the upper shelf: Abarat by Clive Barker; Black Duck by Janet Taylor Lisle; and The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly (who I interview here!).

Clever girl figured it out, and was awarded with Clue #8, which read: The most secret place on the bookshelf. Hint: A mouse resides in it! Seconds later, she was opening a fake-bookcase-secret-liquor-cabinet. It’s one of my favorite yard sale finds, ever.

Inside was tiny heart card that contained Clue #9: What’s new in your room? There, my daughter found two new books illuminated by her nightstand lamp: When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed; and The Misadventures oft the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy.

This treasure hunt was fun, and very easy to put together. A couple of hints:

  • I started with books my daughter was already familiar with to get things rolling, then introduced new books I hope she’ll browse later.
  • I put the clues in the same place in every book, so she would know where to look each time. If you want to extend the time of your hunt, place the clues on random pages.
  • With the exception of the clock clue, I kept everything at eye level. You especially want to do this with younger kids. You don’t want them climbing, searching, and reaching all at the same time. They might topple over in their excitement.
  • For older kids, consider including additional codes and ciphers to translate the clues (mirror writing is a great option, and I love the pigpen cipher from this MYSTERY CLOSET post).
  • The treasure doesn’t have to be budget busting. It can be a pack of new pens, books checked out from your local library, a bit of extra dessert, or a message that simply says “Well done!”
  • Once your child completes the bookshelf treasure hunt, invite them to design one for YOU. My daughter currently has one in the works!

By the way, I hid something in this post for you as well…did you notice there was ONE photo that had nothing to do with the original treasure hunt or the clues? If you guessed the second photo, you are correct! In it, you’ll see my old, beat-up globe resting on a book recommendation for your young readers. The Last Treasure by Janet S. Anderson. It’s a fantastic story about a kid who gets involved in a treasure hunt that stretches far into his family tree, an expansive estate, and a very tricky set of clues (some rather dangerous!). What he discovers is historical, amazing, and touching.

Other treasure-hunting books residing on my home shelves over the years include: The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn by John Bellairs; The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands (interview here); Who Stole the Wizard of Oz by Avi; Addison Cooke and the Treasure of the Incas by Jonathan W. Stokes (project here); Jeremy Fink and The Meaning of Life by Wendy Mass (interview here); Horton’s Miraculous Mechanisms by Lissa Evans (project here, interview here); and Moving Target by Christina Diaz Gonzalez (interview here).

And while most readers would technically classify this book as a scavenger hunt, I would be remiss not to mention Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein!

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!