Bone Up On Your Storytelling

dia de los muertosA few years ago, the Arts Council of Princeton asked my library to submit a piece for their Dia de los Muertos exhibit. The result was the crazy kaleidoscope you see before you.

The base of was made of two recycled archive boxes (with 20 small boxes hot glued to the sides). We used construction paper, shiny cardboard mosaic tiles, patterned paper, foil leaves, miniature plastic gems, and tissue paper. By “we” I mean myself, 4 University students, and 1 Rare Books staffer. It was a “drop in anytime and decorate” sort of project, and over the weeks the layers just kept building.

My favorite part, however, is the skeletons. Princeton University student April Lee drew 20 little skeletons for the base pieces (and I hot glued 20 little books in their hands). But she also crafted the 3D skeleton figurines you see on the top – an adult skeleton reading to skeleton kids. They’re made with card stock and wire. The book being read to the eager youngsters? A fully skeletonized version of The Cat in the Hat of course. Isn’t April amazing? You can see another one of her projects – a fantastic Mythomagic deck – right here.

There were several other pieces in the exhibit as well. But here’s the one that completely won my arty, crafty, re-purposing heart:

Skull by Maria EvansIt’s a giant skull made of chicken wire and coffee filters. Coffee filters! Over 2,000 of them! The artist is Maria Evans (who also happens to be the Artistic Director of the Arts Council). Beautiful.

If you’re looking for an interesting and artistic skeleton with a little Dia de los Muertos flair, take a look at this fellow! Also of possible interest – these super simple kid-safe lanterns.

Buckets of Fun

buckets of funA bucket is a very useful thing…but is it entrancing? This bucket is! Hold it up to the light and you will discover it holds an ocean ecosystem full of fun, including fish, coral, a manta ray, a shark, a starfish, and more!

inside of bucketWe read Billy’s Bucket, written by Kes Gray and illustrated by Garry Parsons (Candlewick, 2003). Billy doesn’t want a bike, sneakers, or a computer game for his birthday. He wants a bucket. Yes, a bucket. At Buckets R’ Us, Billy spots a special bucket (“19 shelves up and 78 across from the top”), fills it with water, and begins to report the most astounding things. He sees shrimp, a shark, a sting ray, sea lions, dolphins, divers, and possibly a mermaid! His parents chuckle at their son’s active imagination. Jokingly, they ask if they can use the bucket for some household chores. But Billy warns them that they must never EVER borrow his bucket. The next day, Dad doesn’t heed Billy’s warning and sets off the wash the family car. He quickly discovers that Billy was right. There is something special about the bucket! Now how are they going to get that whale back in the bucket?

You’ll need:

  • A 2.5 quart clear plastic bucket (more on this below)
  • Construction paper
  • A selection of patterned tape
  • A selection of dot stickers and/or other stickers for decoration
  • 1 circle of blue cellophane (approximately 9.5″ in diameter)
  • 1 rectangle of blue poster board (approximately 5.5″ x 18″)
  • 1 sea creatures template, printed on 8.5″ x 11″ white card stock
  • 3 pieces of (no more than 4″ each)
  • A selection of fabric flowers (optional)
  • 1 small seashell (optional)
  • Fish stickers (optional)
  • Scissors and tape for construction
  • Markers for decorating
  • Hot glue

A word about buckets. Size is not important. The most important thing is that the bucket has a clear plastic bottom to allow light through. I found this little 2.5 quart mixing bucket in the paint section of Lowe’s (for other fantastic hardware finds, click here and here). It was perfect.

bucket step 1First, wrap the outside of the bucket with construction paper. One long piece of construction paper resulted in ugly gaps at the top and bottom. So we decided to use three, 5.25″ x 7.5″ rectangles of construction paper. It worked great. You can cover your bucket with a single color, or mix it up (we offered orange, red, green, and yellow paper). Once covered, decorate the outside of the bucket with colored masking tape and stickers (or just use markers).

bucket step 3 Now for the ocean inside your bucket! Here’s what a finished interior looks like:

hanging critters Begin by cutting wave shapes on top of a rectangle of blue poster board. Set the poster board aside for a moment.

wavesSqueeze a ring of hot glue around the bottom of the bucket (right at the edge, where the bottom meets the sides). White glue or a glue stick works too – it just might take a long time to dry and not dry completely clear.  Press a circle of blue cellophane onto the glue.

water step 1Loosely curl your poster board and place it inside the bucket. Once it touches the bottom, uncurl it and push it against the sides of the bucket. You want the poster board to trap the edges of the cellophane, leaving a relatively smooth circle of cellophane at the bottom of the bucket.

water step 2Use several pieces of tape to secure the poster board to the interior perimeter of the bucket, right at the top. To add a little background texture, we prepped some coral and sea grass shapes out of construction paper. During the program, kids taped 4 pieces to the blue cellophane.

taped coralThen we hot glued 3 fabric flowers (more “coral”) and a small shell to create the “floor” of the ocean. I offered fish stickers as well (but you can skip this option, or have kids draw fish using markers. Just make sure they do it before they attach the poster board to the interior of the bucket!). I stuck a fish sticker on the cellophane as well.

ocean floorColor and cut the sea creatures from the template (I gave the kids the option of a shark or a dolphin, but you can do both if you like). Tape a piece of elastic beading cord to the back of the fish, the manta ray, and the shark (and/or dolphin). Adjust for height, then tape the other end of the cord to the “roof” of the bucket. The starfish and the crab get taped (or hot glued) to the ocean floor.

hanging crittersFor best results, hold your bucket up to a window with plenty of light. Enjoy!

Your First Book

giant dance party coverIf you read (and breathe) children’s books, chances are you’ve considered writing one yourself. But writing can be tough, and publishing can be diabolically elusive. In the hopes of shedding a little light on the process, I decided to interview an author about her experiences in both writing and publishing her first picture book.

Some of you will immediately recognize the name Betsy Bird. In addition to being a Youth Collections Specialist at the New York Public Library, she has served on various literary projects and panels (including the Newbery Award committee), written for Horn Book, Kirkus, the New York Times, and has a popular School Library Journal blog, A Fuse #8 Production. This fall, in collaboration with Julie Danielson and Peter Sieruta, she released an adult non-fiction book titled Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature (Candlewick, 2014).

Betsy’s also published a picture book, Giant Dance Party, which is illustrated by Brandon Dorman (Greenwillow Books, 2013). The book is about a little girl named Lexy who decides (after a few bad experiences with stage fright) to quit the stage and become a dance instructor instead. Her only pupils, however, are five furry (but highly enthusiastic) blue giants. We had a fabulous time reading this book at our story time (you can see the project here). But what was it like to write and publish it?

magic tree bookstore

Betsy (center) stops by Magic Tree Bookstore on her book tour

So, one morning, did you wake up and decide you were going to write a children’s book?

Not exactly. It was more a gentle thought in the back of my brain that sat there percolating for a while. Honestly, the only reason Giant Dance Party even happened was that illustrator Brandon Dorman wrote me an email one day that essentially said, “Let’s do a book together! I’ll illustrate it, you write it, and I only have one idea: Giant leaping.” I mean, how do you turn that kind of thing down? I fully credit him with getting me off of my tuchis and writing.

How did you proceed from “Giant leaping?”

Well, I pretty much just came up with three different ideas, all of which involved giants launching themselves in the air in some way. After I hammered them out and Brandon approved them we approached his editor. We presented three ideas and the publisher purchased two. Easy peasy!

After the idea was purchased, did you write the story?

No, before! It was complete and they bought it that way. Then came the copious edits.  We actually went through two different editors with two very different styles in the course of the book. Lots of changes were made but honestly I think it was for the best in the end. The book’s much stronger now than it was when we first turned it in.

Giant-Dance-Party-InsideHow long did it take to write the story? Did you involved anyone else, or was it just you, the keyboard, and your favorite caffeinated beverage?

Honestly this was actually a kind of rare occurrence. You see, I worked with Brandon on the stories before we submitted them and he gave me feedback. Under normal circumstances authors and illustrators are given wide berth of one another and are not allowed to communicate all that much when collaborating. But since we already had a friendship and it was Brandon’s idea in the first place (plus the fact that he’s a New York Times Bestseller rockstar) we decided to bounce ideas off of one another while we developed the book. It was a LOT of fun. And I think it just took a couple months to hammer everything out in the end.

Did you give Brandon any feedback on the illustrations?

I did but not until much later in the process. The illustrations went through a LOT of changes. In the end there wasn’t much to really suggest. The man’s a pro. But I did suggest a darker color to some hand painted letters in one scene and more diversity in the characters in another scene. Aside from that, no changes necessary!

You mentioned copious edits. Can you tell us more about what it was like to work with editors?

Sure! My first editor was pretty easy going. I came into his office and we did a lot of line edits, sitting down and going over every single sentence. Then he left the company and I found myself with another editor entirely! She had a different vision for the book, having inherited it rather than purchasing it herself. Honestly, we’re very lucky she liked it enough to proceed with it. It was because of her vision that the giants changed from gross, disgusting, big warty guys into furry blue piles of adorableness. She was also very rigorous with the text and the ending and a lot of changes were made to the storyline. In the end, I think it ended up a much stronger book and I was happy to take most (though admittedly not all) of her suggestions.

giants bowHow long did it take from idea percolating to the final, finished book?

You mean for it to reach bookstore and library shelves? I believe we started the process in 2009 and it came out in 2013. That’s partly because of the switch in editors and partly because books take FOREVER to be published. Ask any author and they will tell you that this is true. It may even explain the rise in self-publishing, honestly.

What was it like to hold your finished book in your hands? Or watch children read it?

The finished book was lovely and surreal all at once. Not quite as surreal as watching perfect strangers pick it up and read it on their own, but surreal just the same. I really got a kick out of hearing folks discuss it without knowing I was nearby. Eventually, I’m going to have to experience that universal moment so many authors have had to face where you see your book in a secondhand store or Goodwill, but until then I’m loving it.

What was one thing that surprised you about writing a children’s picture book?

I was definitely surprised by how long the whole publication process takes. I expected a year or two, but more than that? Crazytalk! So that was new to me. There’s also the fact that in many ways the author is in the dark when it comes to knowing how a book is doing.  That might be a good thing, though. Knowing too much leads to insanity.

Do you have any advice for people who might be developing a story of their own?

The best thing you can do is read as many books as you can that are similar to your own.  Know what’s out there. The last thing you want to be is derivative and the nice thing about consuming vast quantities of children’s literature is that after a while you can parse the good from the bad. So visit your local children’s library and check out, check out, check out!

If you’d like to learn more about Betsy, her books, and her literary adventures, visit her website, Betsy Bird Books. And if you know juuuust where to look in her website’s “Media” section, you can see footage of her dancing in fuzzy blue legwarmers. I really do need a pair.


Book images used with permission of the author, and author photo used with permission of Magic Tree Bookstore.