Kit, Thou Mockith Me

kit, thou mockith meWe are truly honored to bring an old friend back to the blog today. Remember Hope, our kid tester? The last time we saw her, she was testing ice cream makers. Then she made it to finals for National History Day, started high school, joined marching band, and designed a kick butt hands-on history program for her community library – you know, keeping busy. But this summer, I lured her back to the offices to test a calligraphy kit by ARTSCHOOL, which retails for around $30. Take it away Hope!

calligraphy kit by artschool

Hey everybody! I’m glad to be back reviewing cool crafty products for Pop Goes the Page. I guess I’m your “teen-tester” now!  With that being said, I was enthusiastic to test this calligraphy kit by ARTSCHOOL. The box was aesthetically pleasing, with a fold-over magnet fastener and a modern color palette of gray, teal, black, and white. The box also doubled nicely as reusable storage for the kit items because it wasn’t flimsy cardboard.

inside of calligraphy kitThe kit includes: 1 instruction book, practice paper, 3 cartridge pens (xtra fine, medium, and xtra bold), 5 ink cartridges (red, green, purple, blue, and black), 1 classic dipping pen with metal nib, 1 small bottle of black ink, 4 tubes of gouache (red, white, blue, orange), 1 paint brush, 4 gift tags, 4 bottle tags, and 8 note cards with envelopes. After reading the extensive list of supplies included in the kit, I searched the exterior of the box, the interior of the box, the instruction manual, and pretty much everywhere else for a suggested age range for the product…

Now, if you’ve read some of the other product reviews featured on Pop Goes the Page, you know by now that most products that have age ranges are not estimated very carefully, and a product suggested for ages 8+ gives a 14 year old and 2 full-grown adults trouble (like this. And, uh…this).  But I couldn’t even find an age range suggested for this kit. Personally, I find that more troubling than an inaccurate age range because as a customer purchasing the product, you don’t have even the faintest inkling (did you catch that calligraphy joke?) of how difficult the projects included will be. At least an inaccurate age range still is able to tell you, even roughly, that the product is intended for children, or teens, etc.

I’ve done a bit of calligraphy in the past because I received a book and pen set as a gift, so this wasn’t my first calligraphy rodeo. I mean, that was probably three-ish years ago, so I needed a refresher, but there were a few things I thought I might have kept with me. Just like riding a bike, right? So I thought, Sounds like fun! And hey, maybe this instruction booklet will be helpful in rekindling my minimal calligraphy talent! Ah, well, “the best laid plans of mice and men…” truly applies here.

booklet exteriorUpon opening the instruction booklet, which was titled Calligraphy the Easy Way by Diane Foisy, I was pleasantly surprised to find a ten page history on calligraphy’s origins, purpose, and more recently, its decline, and those who are attempting to keep the art form alive.

booklet interiorWith the ending of that section, in bold letters, it said “History has shown us that calligraphy will prevail.” I’m not sure about you, but to me that sounded a bit sinister, a bit secret society-ish. There was nothing exactly wrong with the statement itself; it just felt a bit chilling for a craft kit instruction booklet.

Following this seemingly superstitious statement, there was a page titled “Equipment: Basic Materials” that did not specifically mention the items in the kit, though there was a photo that showed the gouache in the center of a palette. I flipped through the whole booklet; there is not a single place where it tells you how to use the items specifically in the kit, except for a set of instructions telling you how to load each kind of pen included. Also, the cartridge pens were very hard to load, and it almost hurt to pop the seal on the cartridge so that the ink could flow.

difficult ink cartridgeOn that page, it also mentioned directions for using a “classic stylus”… nowhere else in the kit is this mentioned. Perhaps it is referring to the “classic dipping pen,” but if so, that was not made clear.

dipping pen in ink

To be honest, though using the dipping pen was more difficult, it was much more fun to use. It felt like a portal to the past, and you could imagine famous writers doing exactly what you were doing; Dickens, Tolstoy, Wells, Poe…

There was a page in the booklet with photographs detailing the cleaning of your pens after each use that I thought was a nice touch. Right after the page about pen care and cleaning, the booklet dove straight into “The Basics.” This was a 4-page section on the basic lines of calligraphy that are used to make all of the letters. However, there were no pictures of someone actually holding a pen so that you were able to gain an understanding of how to angle the pen for optimal ink flow. The directions simply made the callous suggestion “…if the ink does not flow, correct the angle until you have the stroke like the sample shown. You will develop a feel for when the ink flows well.”

Excusez-moi! What does “correct the angle” mean, exactly? To me, this felt like the pretentious calligrapher’s way of saying, “Sorry that you’re new at this, but you’ll figure it out eventually.” I did not feel properly instructed by this instruction booklet; I felt slighted for my comical lack of talent.

kit practiceNeedless to say, I was not very adept at creating even these simple lines. When I was making these lines on the practice paper provided, the ink went right through the paper. When it did not go through the paper, it bled on the surface of the paper, so it did not make clean lines like those pictured in the booklet.

Finally, I just decided to move on to trying to make actual letters in what the booklet called the “Chancery Style” of calligraphy. Overall, it was much more satisfying to make slightly misshapen versions of the letters pictured instead of creating row after row of little dashes.  However, again there were no pictures of someone actually writing the letters; there were simply arrows with numbers silently instructing you how to shape the letters.

Considering the minimal amount of instruction provided concerning how to make the letters, I felt like I was doing a decent job. Please don’t misunderstand me- I am certainly no expert (as is evidenced by these misshapen letters). But it was certainly more satisfying to make complete letters instead of what felt like, what must’ve been, hundreds of dashes, row after row, never succeeding.

letteringThe last section of the instruction booklet was titled “Projects”, and mostly pictured completed versions of the tags, note cards, and bottle labels included in the kit with long descriptions of the pictures. It was pretty much the biography of a thank-you note card, the origin story of a gift tag, and the memoir of a wine bottle label.

I think I would have appreciated it more if these had been the actual histories instead of the author narrating every pen stroke it took to design the aforementioned items. Despite this, the photographs included were helpful in inspiring my creations, including, a note card, a tag, and a wine bottle label (along with the honest statement, “I have no idea what I’m doing!” pictured at the beginning of this post).

calligraphy thank you cardThe booklet ended with a brief piece about the history of illumination, a type of medieval calligraphy done mostly by monks, and a few pages of flower templates that the author encouraged you to copy and use in your own designs.

There was never a mention of using the gouache and paintbrush. Not once. This was puzzling and frustrating because I was interested in getting to work with gouache (hybrid between watercolors and acrylic paint).

gouche, i hardly knew yeBy the end of this kit, by hands were speckled with ink, and I felt like that more than just my fingers had been immersed in the messy history of calligraphy. (The ink came off of my hands after 6-10 hand washes.)

inky handsI was so excited to use this product to make something beautiful with calligraphy, but instead I felt inadequate and mocked by the instruction manual. I should’ve been the one mocking the inadequate instruction manual. Since it was called (and I quote) an “instruction book,” I felt that I should have been instructed, not loosely guided by numbers and arrows. On the plus side, I gained a new appreciation for Charles Dickens’ incredibly long novels because he had to write them with one of these pens!

PROS: Nice packaging, good array of supplies, fun concept.
CONS: Lacking detailed instructions and sympathy for the learner.

After reviewing the pros and cons, I rate this product:
A sigh out of five. Which I’d categorize as a 2 out of 5.

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.