Seeing Spirits

seeing spiritsA quiet forest appears empty. But gaze long enough and…a fox spirit will magically appear before your eyes! No, its not Photoshop or camera trickery. It’s a simple physical stage illusion called Pepper’s Ghost (invented by English scientist John Henry Pepper in 1862). We conjured it at To Be Continued, our chapter book story time program for 6-8 year-olds. Scroll to the bottom of the post to see a video of the illusion in action!

We read Arlo Finch in the Lake of the Moon, written by John August (Roaring Brook Press, 2019). Summer camp for most kids means bonfires, canoeing, and hiking. But for Arlo Finch and his friends, it means surviving the supernatural forces of the Long Woods. Doppelgangers, menacing strangers, talking foxes, locations both in and out of time, and a mysterious object unearthed after decades in hiding test both Arlo’s courage, and his friends’ loyalty.

In the book, Arlo has a special ability to see the spectral world. And I’ve wanted to make a Pepper’s Ghost project for kids for AGES. Through an afternoon of happy experimenting, I was able to construction this inexpensive and kid-friendly tabletop version.

You’ll need:

  • 2 large tissue boxes
  • A box cutter
  • 1 toilet paper tube
  • 1 piece of glass or clear polystyrene (more on this below)
  • White card stock
  • Scissors, glue, and tape for construction
  • Markers for decorating

First, cut the lids off the top of a pair of large tissue boxes. Then cut the boxes in such a way as to create an L shape box like so:

ghost box step 1The L shape box is consists of two sections: a “forest section” and a “ghost section.”

ghost box sectionsNext, cut a small square (approximately 1.75″ x 1.75″) in the side of the box that faces the forest section. This is your viewfinder.

ghost box step 2In the book, Arlo gazes through a slipknot, a loop of rope or lacing that allows him to see and travel multidimensionally. In order to replicate that rounded view, we slid a 2.25″ piece of toilet paper tube into the viewfinder as well.

ghost box step 3 Now draw a backdrop for the wall opposite the viewfinder. I had the kids decorate a pre-cut  piece of paper or cardboard, then we glued it to the inside of the box.

ghost box step 4Next, sketch a ghost on a piece of white card stock. Here’s my tribute to Fox, a spirit from the book (and my favorite character):

fox spiritTape the ghost in the ghost section of the Pepper’s Ghost box. Though you will probably need to do a little adjusting on the exact placement, try to arrange the ghost in the center of the section. I found this gave the best results.

ghost box step 5Now for the magic! A Pepper’s Ghost illusion is essentially a reflection. For this model, the reflection is caused by a piece of glass or clear polystyrene set at a 45 degree angle in the junction of the L shaped box.

ghost box step 6During my initial test, I used a piece of glass from a 4″ x 6″ picture frame. However, I was a little uncomfortable giving multiple 6-8 year-old kids pieces of glass to take home. Luckily, I found clear polystyrene sheets on Amazon (a set of ten, 8″ x 10″ sheets cost $15). Polystyrene is plastic, lighter weight, doesn’t shatter, and you can cut it down to size with a box cutter or scissors. Testing revealed that the reflection illusion works just as well with polystyrene as glass. Yay!

The final piece of the Pepper’s Ghost illusion is the lighting. First, cover the area above the view finder with a square of cardboard…

ghost box step 7Then hinge a second square of cardboard over the ghost section. It’s important that this flap open and close. With the flap closed, the ghost will not appear through the viewfinder. But when you lift the flap, the ghost section will illuminate, causing a reflection to appear.

ghost box step 8Ready to see the illusion in action? Close the flap and peer through the viewfinder. Keep gazing through the viewfinder, then lift the flap over the ghost section. Your ghost will magically appear! I also encouraged kids to stick their hands in the forest section and try to grab the ghost. Their fingers passed right through it, of course!


This isn’t the first time the To Be Continued kids have adventured with Arlo Finch and his friends. We read the first book, Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire earlier in the program (you can see the project we did here). The kids voted unanimously to read the sequel. It did not disappoint. The Arlo Finch books are full of action, intrigue, mystery, and humor. I highly recommend them!

Hot Off The (Historical) Press!

hot off the historical pressRecently, the Department of Special Collections at Princeton University Library hosted an amazing exhibit, “Gutenberg & After: Europe’s First Printers 1450-1470,” and our library hosted a special event that featured a children’s tour and hands-on activities. If you’ve ever wanted to do something related to printing and the history of the book, read on!

The Gutenberg exhibit featured early European books that were printed on the first moveable type printing presses, including the world’s first dictionary, medical texts, law books, and the big granddaddy of ALL rare books, the Gutenberg Bible. That’s me in the above photo, leading the tour.

During my talk, I discussed hand-written books before print, how the early printing press worked, and how the growing availability of printed books evolved us into a culture of reading and writing. I had quill pens, actual 15th-century illuminated manuscript pages (thanks to this program!), vellum, and pieces of moveable type for kids to handle.

Meanwhile, in our children’s gallery, we had three hands-on activities: 1) Calligraphy; 2) A typewriter petting zoo; and 3) A pasta machine printing press.

calligraphy set upFor the calligraphy activity, we purchased both traditional feather quill pens and metal nib quill pens on Amazon, along with bottles of ink. Katie printed different examples of calligraphy so kids could replicate some letters. We also had calligraphy pens and brush pens in rainbow colors. Everyone loved trying the pens, and the calligraphy wasn’t just limited to the English language…

arabic calligraphyWe also had a massively popular typewriter petting zoo. There were 5 typewriters in all, 2 working, 2 non-working, and 1 toy for the really little kids. Kids could touch, explore, and clatter away on them! Katie and I were a wee bit worried about how loud the zoo would be, but quickly learned that the sound of multiple typewriters is actually incredibly soothing (at least to us!).

typewriter montageThe final activity was something I’ve been wanting to do ever since I spotted in on the Eric Carle Museum‘s blog (see this post for my tour of their awesome art studio). Namely, A PASTA MACHINE PRINTING PRESS! It was fantastic.

You can find detailed instructions here on the Carle’s studio blog. But basically, you’ll need foam trays, a carving tool, paint, rollers, paper, and a pasta machine. We purchased the cheapest one we could find on Amazon. It was $28. Just make sure the one you buy clamps to the table

pasta machine The steps for the activity are as follows: Firs, use a tool to carve a design into a foam sheet. The tool can be a pen, pencil, or wooden scratch art styluses. The foam sheets are the same material that meat is packaged on. We bought thinner versions on Amazon (Presto foam printing plates, a 100 pack of 6″ x 4″ sheets is $15).

foam sheetsNext, roll paint over your engraved foam sheet. We used trays to reduce the mess. They were definitely helpful!

foam traysFinally, place a piece of paper on top of your painted engraving and run it through the pasta machine printing press. Peel the foam sheet and the paper apart, and you have a beautiful custom print!

pasta printing press resultsImportant! Make sure the pasta machine is set to a wider setting. As you can see in the photo below, if the machine setting is too narrow, the paint will just squish into the lines of your engraving. The wider setting allows to white lines of your design to appear.

pasta machine settingsAlso, make sure kids know that if they want to print words, they have to carve them backwards as the printing process reverses the carved image. And you might want paper plates handy so kids can transport their still-damp prints home.

What’s really cool is that some kids started experimenting with printing in multiple colors.  Including THIS gorgeously vibrant one. LOVE!

rainbow print


Many thanks to Eric White, Curator of Rare Books, for his enthusiasm, expertise, and assistance in designing the children’s tour. And to AnnaLee Pauls, for generously loaning her beloved and amazing typewriters to our petting zoo!

Home Aquarium

home aquarium

Need an aquarium in your home? How about we just make the whole HOUSE the aquarium? Turn the tab at the top of this house to twirl ocean creatures past your window. Video, of course, at the end of the post!

We read Faucet Fish, written by Fay Robinson, and illustrated by Wayne Anderson (Dutton Children’s Books, 2005). Elizabeth adores fish, and spends quite a lot of time at the local aquarium. Alas, she only owns a guppy, and her parents aren’t keen on getting any more fish. But one day, a trout drops out of the faucet! The faucet fish keep coming, getting larger and larger until a baby beluga emerges in the tub. Only one thing left to do…turn the entire house into an aquarium!

You’ll need:

  • 1 small tissue box
  • A box cutter
  • A square of blue cellophane
  • A selection of construction paper
  • 1 brass fastener
  • 1 snippet of poster board
  • 1 plastic cup
  • 1 strip of white card stock
  • Scissors, tape, and hole punch for construction
  • Markers for decorating
  • Hot glue

The box for this project definitely requires a lid! We used a 4.5” X 4.5” x 6” craft box, but a small tissue box works as well (just flip the tissue box upside down). Use a box cutter to create a small slit in the center of the box’s “roof.” Next, cut a window in the box. Use leftover cardboard scraps to craft window panes, and tape blue cellophane over it.

window of aquarium houseNow decorate the outside of your house! We offered construction paper, color masking tape, and patterned tape, but you can also just use markers. One thing to note…the roof is just a triangle of paper attached to the front of the box. It doesn’t extend backwards over the top of the box.

home aquariumNext, decorate a strip of white card stock with ocean creatures. Make sure to measure the strip carefully…it needs to wrap fully around your plastic cup and not extend past the top or bottom. Our strip was 4″ tall x 11″ wide. And can I say what a fine job Katie did with her ocean creatures? Just look at that happy jellyfish!

strip of ocean crittersThe final piece of the project is the spinning cylinder. This is a plastic cup attached to the roof of the house with a brass fastener. Two tabs extend from the top of the box, allowing you to easily turn the mechanism:

plastic cup attached to houseOur tabs were created with a 0.75″ x 3″ snippet of poster board. Punch a hole in the center, then thread a brass fastener through the hole. Push the ends of the fastener through small slits cut in the top of the box and the bottom of a plastic cup. Unfold the fastener’s prongs inside the cup.

You really want the connection to be strong, so we recommend hot gluing AND taping the head of the brass fastener on the snippet. Hot glue a small square of cardboard over the prongs inside the cup as well:

reinforced cup connectionFinally, wrap your strip of ocean critters around the cup. As you can see in the above photo, the cup is tapered, so the strip won’t wrap around it in a perfect circle. No problem! So long as the strip is secured tightly to one point of the cup (we suggest the strip’s seam) it will work. Here’s a shot of the finished mechanism, which is then tucked inside the house. Secure the lid down with tape.

finished aqarium cylindarReady to see this little contraption in action? The colors were a little muted in the video, so I removed the blue cellophane from the window to showcase the ocean critters more clearly. Swim my little friends, swim!