The House of Potter

Ready for a stroll down Diagon Alley? Perhaps gaze upon an ever-shifting gothic window? Or maybe you’d like to enjoy the portrait gallery before you ramble through the graveyard? Behold the astounding efforts of Matthew Howard and his family, who have been upping the Hogwarts Halloween stakes since 2018. Katie chatted with Matt about this amazing endeavor!

Who had the original idea to start decorating your house for Halloween?

It started in 2017 when we wanted to bring more trick or treaters into our neighborhood. We placed a homemade cutout of Oogie Boogie from The Nightmare Before Christmas in our front window and backlit it to create a silhouette. It was really well received. Not only was it fun for the community, it was fun for our whole family to build. The following year, my wife, Brianna, said, “I wish I could go to Hogwarts. Wouldn’t it also be fun if we had our own Diagon Alley in the front yard?” And so the construction began.

Do you have any experience in construction or set design? Or have you been learning as you build?

I don’t have any construction or set design experience, but as a kid I was always encouraged with “why don’t you build a fort?” when I was bored. It started with pillows and blankets, but as I got older, I started using lumber and building treehouses. Between that, and a great art class in high school, it gave me a solid foundation to build this project upon.

Is this endeavor a family project?

The whole family participates in building the sets. I always ask my daughters if they want to help. They have helped trace the initial projections onto wood, learned to use power tools safely with my supervision, but their favorite activity is painting the sets. Brianna designs and creates most of the small details and props of the display. This includes the window displays in Ollivanders Wand Shop and Honeydukes, as well as the flying Hogwarts acceptance letters. These details create a more immersive experience and have been the main factor in some people staying for 45 minutes looking at all the small intricacies that make the house so magical.

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced?

Most people assume the biggest challenges are building the large props and sets. Surprisingly, the biggest issue is securing everything from the wind. We overlooked this for a while and just kept resetting gravestones or other props. Then during one particularly windy year, Ollivanders blew over and we had to spend hours rebuilding it. Since then, everything we build has wind and weather in mind. We expanded our Diagon Alley display this year, and we knew wind would be a huge issue with the larger surface area. Behind the façade, there are a lot of supports bolted into the cement. This is not the most fun part of building our Harry Potter House, but it is essential.

Best guess: how many times have you gone to a hardware store and/or lumber yard for supplies? 

The funny part is I plan what I will need to minimize trips, but there is always a box of screws we run out of or a can of paint that has dried out. I love it when we have an idea, mid-build, to make something better. It makes the extra run out to the hardware store more exciting as my imagination is creating big plans. But if I had to guess, we probably go to the hardware store between 1-5 times per weekend from Labor Day weekend up until the day of Halloween.

What is it like for you when you see the reaction of people who trick-or-treat at your house?

This is the most incredible part of the whole build. While the kids think it is really cool, I have noticed it is the adults that really get a lot out of it.  Many times, adults will strike up a conversation with us: “I remember the excitement of reading each new book as it came out. This is amazing and it is fun to share this with my kids. Thank you for doing this.” It is really fun to watch as families come up, and each family member is pointing in different directions saying, “Wow! Look that that!” As people approach the house, they run up excitedly shouting, “Harry Potter!” or “We love Harry Potter!”

The highlight is watching everyone’s faces, seeing the positive reactions, and bringing our community together. People bump into old friends all the time here and stop to take photos. It is fun to see how much joy our decorations bring to people of all ages, hearing what their favorite parts of the display are, or why they love the books and movies so much. It is very rewarding and that is why we love doing it.

Where and when can people see your incredible Harry Potter House?

We are located near the Cottle exit of Highway 85 in San Jose, California. Our displays will be running on October 31 and November 1. If anyone is interested in stopping by and seeing the house in person, more information can be found on our Facebook page.

Any advice for others who are inspired to transform their residence into Hogwarts for Halloween?

I think the most important thing is picking a theme you really love and will be excited by every year. Once you have that, just make a plan. We tend to do 1-2 big additions each year and the rest is just coming up with smaller details to add. If you have kids, think about how you can include them.  This will make October a month the whole family looks forward to every year.

Early thoughts on the Harry Potter magic you’d like to construct for next year?

We find the plans for the following year tend to come out of a project we thought of the year before but didn’t have the money or time to complete. Last year’s idea was the entrance to Hogwarts, but that was too much money and too much time. What is great about that is you then find yourself thinking about it for the whole next year and designing it in your head. So when it is finally the time to build, it is even better than your initial idea. This year I really wanted to build more façades for Diagon Alley (and maybe Knockturn Alley?), but we ran out of time and money. So perhaps you can guess what new additions you might see in 2021.

One final important question: what Hogwarts House did the Sorting Hat place you in?

I believe it was two years ago when we sat down and read through the full descriptions of each Hogwarts House on Pottermore. The Sorting Hat then placed three of us into Ravenclaw, and our youngest was placed in Gryffindor. It has been fun to watch our girls grow and continue to see their House attributes and qualities play out. The Sorting Hat sure knows what it is doing.


Images courtesy of Matthew Howard, and the Harry Potter House Facebook page

The Not-So-Secret Garden

the not so secret garden

You had a sneak peek here…today we’ll be sharing the sunshine-filled details of our Secret Garden event, which took place on the gorgeous grounds of Morven Museum & Garden!

Morven Museum & Garden is a historical landmark located in Princeton, New Jersey. It is the former Governor’s Mansion and, for more than 250 years, has been the home of five New Jersey governors and Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Morven’s house, outbuildings, grounds, and new Stockton Education Center are absolutely beautiful. So when they offered their gardens for a collaboration, we jumped at the chance.

Redbud-and-Tulip-poplar-(rt)-Morven_photo by Richard Speedy

Image courtesy of Morven Museum & Garden. Photo by Richard Speedy

Katie and I have been wanting to do a Secret Garden event for ages, and we especially wanted to focus on the novel’s themes of discovery, exploration, playfulness, and interaction with the the natural world. And Morven’s gardens are so beautiful…

exploring the gardenIn the Secret Garden, the 3 children build a private world within their walled garden, and we wanted to replicate that feeling. We found these terrific 39.5″ x 39.5″ x 43.5″ canvas play tents on Amazon (a bit pricey at $65 a pop, but they will be used for other events, so win!):

play tentsThe tents were a HUGE hit, and were in constant use all day long. They were light enough for kids to move around, so there were a number of interesting configurations throughout the day (my favorite being a long tent tunnel). Not far from the tents were wood slice stepping stones, which Princeton University’s Grounds & Maintenance was kind enough to donate…

stepping slicesWe pulled aside 2 of the larger wood slices to make tic tac toe boards. Use a permanent marker or paint to draw the board, and 2 different color rocks for the pieces.

wood slice tic tac toeIn addition to tic tac toe, we had a natural wood ring toss for the younger kids, and this cool Finnish game called Mölkky for older kids…

molkkyYou will find a full description of Mölkky here. But basically, it’s a game that involves some semi-skilled tossing and a little basic math. It’s super chill, super fun, and perfect for families. It also won Green Toy of the Year Award in 2015! A set costs $50 on Amazon, but again, we now have it for future events.

Meanwhile, on the slate patio near Morven’s garden fountain, there was natural paint brush painting:

natural paintbrushesThe brushes are 10″ sticks (thanks again Princeton Grounds & Maintenance!) with various flowers and foliage attached to the ends with rubber bands. Kids dipped the brushes into bowls of water and experimented with the different patterns the brushes created on the slate patio.

If you do this activity at your event, however, have big buckets of water handy, not just bowls. We quickly learned that kids like to carry and move the bowls with them, which inevitably tip over. I had to do a lot of monitoring and refiling to keep the project going.

We also had a very, very popular bubble wand station! We bought three, 15 piece bubble sets with giant wands on Amazon for $8. Plus two, 64oz bottles of solution for $9. We should have bought more solution folks, because we ran out halfway through the event! We recommend one 64oz bottle of solution per hour, minimum.

floating bubble We ran 5 hands-on craft tables at the event as well: nature print bookmarks, paperclip robins, bean mosaics, racing caterpillars, and butterfly feeders.


1: NATURE PRINT PAPER

Nature print paper (sometimes also called sun print paper) is a staple of science classes everywhere. We bought our 5″ x 7″ sheets on Amazon (a pack of 40 sheets cost $11), but to stretch the budget, we cut each sheet into 1.5″ x 7″ strips that would later serve as  bookmarks. All you need are some garden clippings, tubs of water, and paper plates for carrying your creation while it fully dries. Helming the table was Hope, our teen tester, who also volunteers at Morven!

hope and the nature print tableThis photo was taken right before the event officially started. Hope was pretty much mobbed the rest of the day. TOTAL TROOPER.


2: PAPERCLIP ROBINS

paperclip robbinsA robin plays an integral part of introducing Mary to the secret garden, so we borrowed this craft from Family Fun magazine. All you need are a pair of paperclips, heavy weight paper, scissors, tape, and a hole punch. Voilà! Personal robin!


3: BEAN MOSAICS

For a longer, more focused event project, we offered bean mosaics similar to the one pictured above. We provided kids with 3″x3″ squares of poster board. Baby wipes are a good idea for cleaning up hands and work areas, and paper plates are also good for carrying around your creation as it’s drying.


4: RACING CATERPILLARS

 

Honestly, you have to see these things in action to really appreciate them. A bit of folding, a drinking straw, and this little caterpillar really races! We had 2 table top race tracks at the event, and the competition was fierce (but there was plenty of laughter too). If you’d like some folding instructions to display on your event tabletop, you’ll find those here.

caterpillar races


5: BUTTERFLY FEEDERS

champagne-glass-butterfly-feeder_croppedThis project was previously featured in a sneak peek post (which you will find here). But there’s an extra special event connection…Morven’s Head Horticulturist, Louise Senior, was tagging butterflies that day!

butterfly tanksLouise brought out a trio of tanks and monarchs in their various forms to lecture about life cycles and butterfly science. Then she tagged and released monarchs to the skies!

monarch caterpillarpupaehatched butterflies


AND FINALLY…

We did have ONE MORE event activity that day. In the book, Mary unearths the garden key that was buried by a grieving Archibald Craven. In the spirit of her life-changing discovery, we designed a key hunt. We hot glued 6 vintage keys to craft sticks and staked them throughout the garden grounds.

hidden keyEach key was assigned a rainbow color so kids would know when they found all 6. Once they reported their success at key hunt HQ, they were rewarded with a vintage mini key of their choice (and yes, we are STILL reusing those mini keys we bought bulk for this Sherlock Holmes escape room!). We had string handy, in case kids wanted to wear their keys home as necklaces.

The hidden key activity was not only related to the book, it was a great way to simple get out and explore the gardens, high and low, near and far…

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It was a glorious day, and we would like to sincerely thank Morven Museum & Gardens for opening their home to us. Their staff and volunteers were absolutely wonderful. A very special thanks to Curator of Education and Public Programs, Debra Lampert-Rudman, for being so enthusiastic, accommodating, and full of joy.

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!