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

In accordance with State and Princeton University measures to contain the spread of coronavirus, the gallery of the Cotsen Children’s Library is closed until further notice, and our children’s programming as been suspended during this closure. Until our library reopens, the blog will post once a week. So every Tuesday, please check in to see what we’re up to…from story time projects to awesome interviews!

Say it with Chocolate

hello 1We’ve reviewed a lot of interesting word products on this blog (see this calligraphy kit, these spelling straws, these clay words, this bbq brander, this DIY neon letter kit, and this vanishing paper!). But today’s blog post has to be the sweetest test yet. Because Katie and her crew tested a chocolate pen. That’s right. A CHOCOLATE PEN. Take it away, Katie!


Candy Craft’s Chocolate Pen retails for around $30 and the suggested age range is 6+, though the instructions specifically say adult supervision and participation is required. I fully support this recommendation and want to add a personal observation. Children ages 10 and under will definitely need adult assistance, whereas kids 10+ should be able to do most on their own with one exception (more on this later).

The Chocolate Pen kit has everything you need to “draw & mold colorful chocolately treats.” There is ½ pounds of confectionary candy in different color pouches (white, red, blue and brown); four clamps; pen tips and caps; three mold trays; five gift bags and twist ties; and the chocolate pen itself (two AA batteries are not included). If you want to write out a word or make your own drawing, you will need to have sheets of either wax or parchment paper handy.

A quick note for those who have food allergies: the confectionery candy contains milk and soy. Please consult the nutrition facts for the full list of ingredients.

After thoroughly washing and drying the various pieces of the pen tip and the treat mold trays, I got to work putting the chocolate pen together. There are a lot of steps to follow, but the instructions describing how to prepare the confectionary candy pouches were clear and well written with informative drawings. However, the instructions did not prepare me for the frustration of attaching the candy pouch to the pen tip.

It took every ounce of my finger/hand strength to properly secure the clamp around the pen tip, which I had inserted into the open melted candy pouch. You have to leave at least 1/8” of excess pouch extending beyond the clamp for a good seal, which makes sense. It would be a disaster to have confectionery candy squirting out of the pouch and into the interior of the chocolate pen. But boy oh boy, it was a real challenge to close the clamp. It was messy, it was aggravating, and it cast serious doubt in my mind about the ability of any child being able to do it on their own (as I alluded to earlier). 

Once I was able to finally lock the clamp, I continued following the preparation instructions until I was ready to start drawing with the chocolate pen. I carefully wrote “Hello” and “Yum” in cursive on a piece of parchment paper. While it was relatively easy to write with the pen, I discovered that candy would continue to ooze out of the pen tip well after I had stopped pushing down the power button. Needless to say, I was left with a big blob of excess candy at the end of my word.

I called upon my son to lend his writing hand and give the pen a try. He wrote “Hola” and had the same problem with excess candy continue to push out of the pen tip after releasing the button. We carefully transported our words and placed them into the freezer to harden. After impatiently waiting the recommended five minutes, we took a bite of our chocolate words. The results were deliciously fantastic! The candy is quite sweet and tasty!

Next up was trying the mold trays. The mold shapes presented an unexpected challenge, due largely in part to the pen continuing to discharge candy after you stop pushing the power button. I found I had varying levels of success. I managed to create two- or three-color candies using the larger molds, but the smaller molds were very difficult. Even just pushing the power button for just 5-10 seconds caused extra candy to fill the molds too full or didn’t allow for a second color to be added. Under important information on the instructions, there is a statement that reads “results will vary from product images depending on age and skill level.” After testing this product, particularly the mold trays, I completely agree with that statement.

The Chocolate Pen is fantastic in concept, but I feel it falls very short of my excited expectations. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed eating my chocolate creations, but the frustration of trying to figure out the perfect amount of time to use the pen without the inevitable stream of extra candy made the process less than fun. The smaller mold shapes are hard to use, and sometimes the finished product didn’t easily pop out of the mold tray, as was the case for the little white music note!

Final ranking: 2 out of 5 stars

It appears the manufacturer made a significant update to this product sometime in 2020 and now offers an automatic load feature on the pen. The chocolate candy is warmed in a separate tray and you simply dip the pen into the color chocolate you want to use, load it and start creating. I’m glad they listened to their customers and made this much needed improvement. However, I’m quite curious there was any change to prevent the extra candy ooze when the pen is in use.

Operators Are Standing By

Hey, how are you doing? The answer to that question may vary hour to hour, but here’s a chance to voice those feelings on your very own “Feel-O-Fone” line! All you need are a few household items to chat with your head and your heart.

We recommend reading The Boy With Big, Big Feelings, written by Britney Winn Lee, and illustrated by Jacob Souva (Beaming Books, 2019). Read here by Hannah Michahelles. A boy’s emotions are so big, he worries he can’t hold them in, deal with them, or make friends. But he soon learns that big hearts are better then ok, they’re the BEST!

You’ll need:

  • 1 large tissue box
  • 1 toilet paper roll
  • Construction paper
  • 1 large paper clip
  • A bit of string, ribbon, shoelace, or wire
  • Scissors and tape for construction
  • Markers for decorating

Wrap your tissue box and toilet paper tube with construction paper, then decorate your phone with markers. I used pushpins to create textured buttons on my phone, but you can also glue on clothing buttons, bottle caps, or draw the buttons with markers.

The toilet paper tube is the phone’s “receiver.” To hang the receiver, slightly unfold a large paper clip, then tape it to the side of the box. The receiver tube slides onto the bent paperclip:

Connect the receiver to the phone box with a piece of ribbon, string, or a shoelace (I used the cable from an ancient set of ear buds). Hang the phone on the wall, and you’re done! To operate the Feel-O-Phone, unhook the receiver and simply talk…tell it how you’re feeling! Happy? Sad? Scared? Worried? Silly? Share away, operators are standing by…