Don’t Try This At Home Kids

don't try this at homeA monkey on a unicycle rolls down a ramp towards a snake. The bar holding the snake drops, which causes a bag of peanuts to fall into a container that sends a cart down a ramp into a tennis racket rigged to a mechanism that touches a match to a cannon fuse and fires an acrobat through a ring of fire!

Rube Goldberg’s inventive cartoons have fascinated me since I was a kid. A few years ago, our library even hosted a Rube Goldberg program, complete with a behemoth of a page turner and other activities. So imagine my delight when I spotted Wonderology’s Rube Goldberg kits on the shelves at Target.

wonderology rube goldberg kitsIntended for ages 8 and up, Wonderology offers 6 different kits that cost between $10 – $20. Each kit contains a plethora of parts and a fully illustrated set of instructions. I purchased the Acrobat Challenge, the Garden Challenge, and the Speeding Car Challenge, then invited 3 kid testers (ages 6, 8, and 10) to try them out.

kid testers at workThe kids were very excited as they unpacked the kits. The parts are fun, bright, and nice quality plastic. Here, for example, are the various pieces of the Acrobat Challenge:

acrobat challenge kit partsHere are the kit’s illustrated instructions. They’re presented in classic Rube Goldberg format (they even use his special font!):

acrobat challenge instructionsBut as soon as construction started on the kits, well…that’s when things started to go wrong. Take the Acrobat Challenge, for example. In one part of the instructions, it clearly shows the yellow “monkey release” flag facing right. In two other sections of the instructions, it’s facing to the left! Also, either way I turned the flag, I never could get the monkey to work quite right.

problem with instructionsThere was a lot more of this I’m afraid – mechanisms not working like the instructions suggested, confusion with where to place the various pieces, the whole schbang toppling over when you tried to adjust it. Soon, there were shouts of frustration, explosive sounds of exasperation, creative G-rated cursing, and a box kicked across the floor (and it wasn’t just the kids doing all that).

Between me and the 6 year-old, we never did get the Acrobat Challenge to work. So our kid tester used it like a play set instead, creating and narrating an involved story about a monkey snake circus. Cool.

Meanwhile, things were looking a bit more promising at the Speeding Car Challenge. It was, against all odds, assembled with somewhat minimal adult assistance.

speeding car challengeBut…see that chicken? It’s supposed to get a feather “plucked” from its tail, which causes it to lay an egg, which triggers the tennis racket, etc. But the egg just wouldn’t stay under the chicken. It just kept dropping and triggering the rest of the mechanism. So you had to skip the chicken all together, which is rather disappointing.

Also, the 8 year-old kid tester wants you to know that the balloon on the car is a little tricky. Once you blow it up, you have to: 1) Block the tailpipe with your finger; 2) Rapidly remove your finger; then 3) Plug in a plastic cork in juuuuuust right. The seal on the balloon starts to leak pretty quickly too. But it was, he admits, a cool-looking car.

balloon car testSo that just leaves the Garden Challenge. This kit was particularly intriguing to me because it involves real water! Our 10 year-old tester managed to assemble it just fine.

the garden challengeBut we soon discovered a fatal manufacturing flaw. See the orange gutter at the top of the mechanism? It’s supposed to tilt downward and let the 8 ball roll down and hit the watering can. But there was a little plastic piece that wouldn’t allow the gutter to tip down far enough! Katie had to saw the piece off with a box cutter in order to get it to finally work.

bad partThen it was test, adjust, retest, adjust, curse quietly under one’s breath, test, adjust, and retest. It took dozens and dozens of attempts, close to an hour of concentration, and Katie’s sheer determination to get it to work. And yes, I did say work. Katie and the kid tester got it to work! Drumroll please…


OK. So maybe the ball bounced off that final ramp, but I’ll take it and call it DONE.

I really admire Wonderology’s concept. The kits are a clever idea, they look fantastic, and the quality of the plastic is good. However, they’re simply not for kids. Especially 8 – 10 year-olds (unless said 8 – 10 year-olds have the patience of saints and the hands of neurosurgeons). Heck, some of us adults had trouble getting them to work! Our testing group found them difficult and rather vexing. While we ultimately had success with one kit, we encountered enough flaws along the way that the ultimate take-away was more exhaustion than exhilaration. Alas, not recommended.

This Is My Story

this-is-my-storyYou love books. You think it’s a clever idea. You’ve picked it up while shopping and mused over it a dozen time. But each time you put it back, thinking…do those make your own book mail-in kits really deliver the goods? Well, ponder no more! Today, we’re reviewing the IlluStory Make Your Own Book kit by Lulu Jr.

illustory-kitThe kit retails for around $20 – $30. It includes 10 washable markers, 20 blank book pages, 2 blank cover pages, a mailing envelope, and detailed instructions. It also has multiple prompt sheets to get young writers going (including – and I really liked this – nonfiction stories and biographies). The kit price includes the production of your book and shipping costs from, and back to, your house (USA only). The final product is a 7.25″ x 9.25″ hardcover book with an illustrated story that is a maximum of 18 pages long.

illustory-kit-contentsGetting started, you have two creation options with this kit: 1) Draw the book by hand; or 2) Design it online using templates, backgrounds, and digital stickers (you can also upload drawings and photos). We went as low tech as possible and chose to create the book by hand. The 8.5″ x 11″ story pages have a big box for illustrations, and 5 lines for text. Since your story can’t be over 18 pages, there are a couple of extra pages, just in case you mess up.

Marissa bravely agreed to write and illustrate a story she titled Arnold’s Birthday Party. She reports that the markers were “awesome.” IlluStory recommends using dark pencil or pen. Marissa used ballpoint pen for her illustrations and text, which worked just fine.

page-of-storyWhen the book was finished, we turned to the order form. Here, we were presented with two options: 1) Produce the book using your handwritten text; or 2) Have the company convert your handwritten words to type (but there is a 20 word per page limit, and they don’t correct spelling or edit). We went with hand lettering.

Make sure you read the kit instructions and the order form carefully! Because otherwise you might miss that you need to number the pages, in pencil, on the back of each page (otherwise, they’ll just print them in the order received). You need to write “Cover” on the back of your cover page. And you definitely don’t was to miss the free options to add a dedication page, or author photo and bio on the back of the book!

Ready to send it off? You have two options: 1) Send it via snail mail in the prepaid envelope; or 2) Upload scans of your cover and story pages to the IlluStory website. We stayed low-tech and went with snail mail.

illustory-mailing-setIlluStory say the books are printed less than 2 weeks from the date received, and ship 3-5 days after printing. They were right on the money. In just under 3 weeks, Marissa’s book was back. It looked fantastic.

2-page-spread-of-storyI was worried that the binding might look cheap. Nope. This is a real, honest-to-goodness book. Glossy white cover, crisp printing, text well clear of the binding margins. The author photo we sent was reproduced nicely. They even put the title and author’s name down the book’s spine! There’s a title page too. It looks really cute:

title-page-of-bookYou also have the option to purchase additional copies and send them to your adoring fans (copies of our book, for example are $14.99). You can order multiple copies in advance, or use the info printed on the back of the book to order copies later.

Beware, however. The production on this kit is quite literal. If you did what I did, and fill out the dedication and author bio in ALL CAPS on the order form, the production team will put those in ALL CAPS IN YOUR BOOK. Also, remember to write the title on the cover of your book. They don’t do that for you. Marissa’s book cover is missing a title, but it sort of adds to the mystery of the big package, doesn’t it? What’s in that big package anyway?*

cover-of-bookIn summary, the IlluStory Make Your Own Book kit is terrific! It’s easy to put together with really nice, professional-looking results. Make sure to read all the instructions and fine print and remember – what you send is exactly what is printed. If you know an aspiring author or illustrator, or are looking to create something special for someone, this kit is a sure bet.


*Spoiler alert. Inside the present is a colossal spider – a gift from an eccentric aunt. The spider runs rampant through the town, swatting helicopters, before Arnold shuts it down with bug spray.

Eraserhead

finished eraser headsEvery writer needs a pencil, and at the end of that pencil is…an eraser. By why settle for the cylindrical pink variety when you can opt for a colorful, unique creation of your own imagination? Enter the Creatibles D.I.Y. Eraser Kit, which retails for around $12. The kit includes a rainbow assortment of clay colors that you can sculpt and bake into custom erasers.

creatibles eraser kitOur kid tester, Hope, is taking a break to tackle middle school madness (classes, school play, going to regionals for the National History Day competition…go Hope!), so Marissa took the Creatibles Kit for a test drive. Take it away, Marissa!


At first, the clay was dry and crumbly. I had to knead it and warm it up with my hands, until it had a consistency similar to Play-Doh. After that, it was no problem to use!

prepping the clayWhen working on my first eraser, I was conservative in my design and how much clay I used. I didn’t think there would be enough (each color is only 0.63 ounces). But I soon realized that I didn’t need that much (unless you’re making a gigantic multi-color dinosaur). The more comfortable I became with the clay, the more I experimented with detail and size.

eraser assortmentSome of the colors (like black, green, and blue) will rub off on your hands and table. So it’s a good idea to wash your hands in between colors. Also, use parchment paper. It really helps keep clay residue off your work table.

Making an eraser that fits onto a pencil is a bit more challenging, because once you start adding detail, the hole you created for the pencil gets squished or warped. So every once in a while, make sure to refit the eraser to the pencil.

refitting eraser on pencilWhen adding little detailed pieces to your erasers, make sure you stick the pieces on well! I had a few eyes and limbs fall off because I didn’t press them down hard enough. Eventually, I used a plastic knife for pressing. Clay modeling tools would probably help and look cleaner, but you don’t have to get that fancy – a plastic knife works fine!

using plastic knifeblue girl finishedThe erasers need to bake at 210-250 degrees for 30 minutes (I went with 250 degrees) then cool and set for 1 hour. I used parchment paper to protect my cookie sheet as well. The hardest part of this project? Waiting the full hour while the erasers cooled down and hardened! I kept checking them every 15 minutes (and if you poke them and they haven’t set, you run the risk of leaving a fingerprint or losing small pieces).

I’m happy to report that the clay doesn’t change color when you bake it. There was no melting or shrinking either! Once your erasers have cooled and set, you can try them out…

pink shark eraser testAnd they work! The pencil residue will stick to the erasers, so if you’re truly using them to erase, they won’t stay pretty for long (or rub the eraser on blank paper to clean it). The eraser doesn’t break or wear down quickly either. Even after some rigorous erasing, the pink shark’s chin was still intact!

pink shark undersideThere’s no stated age range for this kit, but I think it would be good for ages 6 & up. However, because the clay starts out dry and crumbly, younger kids might have a difficult time handling it on their own. But once the clay gets to Play-Doh consistency, it’s fine. Also (and it says this on the kit) the clay could stain “certain finishes” and should be kept away from “carpet, clothing, and other porous surfaces.”

The Creatibles D.I.Y. Eraser Kit is easy to use, a snap to bake, the erasers work, and the sky is the limit as far as creativity. I made 9 erasers for the testing, and there was clay left for at least 2 more! So it would make a great group or party activity too. The kit does require a bit of vigilance with clay residue on your hands and work surfaces, but other than that, it’s fun. I highly recommend it!