The Famous Bucket

famous bucketPrior to 2007, if you had asked a young reader to name a famous bucket, I’ll wager most would have replied “Charlie.” But that was before a new bucket arrived on the scene. A fire-engine red bucket, wielded by an acrobatic young lady with a blonde ponytail. I speak, of course, of Kate Wetherall. Katie is one of the fantastic characters in The Mysterious Benedict Society, written by Trenton Lee Stuart (Little, Brown, 2007).

Intrigued by a curiously-worded advertisement in a local paper, orphan Reynie Muldoon spends a most unusual afternoon taking a series of strange tests. Later, he joins three other children (Sticky Washington, Constance Contraire and Kate Wetherall) who also passed the tests in unique ways. The children are invited to join a secret mission to stop Ledroptha Curtain, a criminal mastermind. The book is filled with puzzles, riddles, and action, but what I love the best is the friendship that forms between the children as their strengths (and weaknesses) are put to the test.

In the books (there are 3 in the series, plus a prequel), Kate always carries a red bucket stocked with a number of useful supplies. So when To Be Continued, our story time program for 6-8 year-olds finished the book, I just knew we had to something with Kate’s bucket! So I designed this game.

bucket gameAll you’ll need is 1 red bucket, a bucket game template printed on white card stock, and a copy of the bucket game scenarios. You’ll need markers to color in the template (or you can just go with the full color version), and scissors. I also gave kids a list of the bucket’s contents.

A quick word about the bucket. The 6.5″ bucket in the above photo can be purchased from Lowe’s for $2.35. However, since I required close to 20 buckets for my program, I needed something cheaper. I found a 4.5″ treat pail at Party City for 99¢. Nice! I also spotted 8.5″ paper bags at Party City for 79¢. Yes, a bag is technically not a bucket, but it’s a budget-friendly option nonetheless.

buckets and bagTo play the game, read a scenario aloud. Ask the kids to select the bucket items they would use to solve the scenario. Once everyone’s selections are made, go around the room and ask them to display which tools they selected, and how they would use them to solve the scenario. As you can imagine, there were some pretty innovative answers!

I’m a big fan of the Mysterious Benedict Society books, and in 2010 I was delighted to interview the author. If you’d like to listen to (or read) my interview with Trenton Lee Stewart, just click here.

Also, I don’t know if you noticed the amazing footwear on the two models at the top of the post (who also happen to be huge fans of the books). If not, scroll back up and prepare for some serious cuteness!

Creative Cookies

creative cookiesWhat could be better then stepping into a warm, fragrant kitchen and whipping up a tasty batch of cookies? Especially when the cookies magically appear in our one-of-a-kind story time oven!

cookie in ovenWe read Ginger Bear by Mini Grey (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2004). Horace and his Mum make cookies, but the consumption of Horace’s ginger bear is continually delayed by trifling matters such as the cookie being too hot, the hour being too close to dinner, and Horace’s freshly brushed teeth. So Horace puts the cookie on his pillow for tomorrow. That night, Ginger Bear wakes up and marches to the kitchen. A few simple ingredients, some delicious toppings, and Ginger Bear creates a massive cookie circus! The revelers are having a grand time when they are intruded upon by Bongo the Dog, who really, really likes cookies. You can imagine what happens next. Ginger Bear just manages to get away, and realizes that he needs to find a safer place to live. The next morning, Horace awakes and Ginger Bear is gone. The clever cookie has found a new home in a pastry-shop window, where, as star of the elaborate displays, he will never be eaten!

You’ll need:

  • 4 rectangles of felt, any color (approximately 5.5″ x 8.5″)
  • 1 pencil
  • A selection of fabric tape (optional)
  • 1 cookie template, printed on 8.5″ x 11″ white card stock
  • A 6.75″ x 14.5″ piece of tagboard for cookies (brown poster board works too!)
  • Cookie decorating supplies (we used self-adhesive foam shapes, a selection of patterned tape, and dot stickers
  • A corrugated cardboard base (mine with 9.75″ x 13.75)
  • Tin foil to cover the cardboard base
  • 1 magic oven (more on this later!)
  • Scissors for construction
  • Markers for decorating
  • Hot glue

First, your oven mitts! Stack 2 rectangles of felt on top of one another, then place your hand on top of the stack (thumb out, fingers close together). Use a pencil to trace the outline of a mitt around your hand. You don’t want the mitts to be too snug, so make sure to leave plenty of room! Use scissors to cut your tracing from the stacked felt.

mitt step 1Now run a line of hot glue along the inside perimeter of the mitt (like you’re “stitching” the felt pieces together with hot glue). Make sure, of course, to leave the bottom of the mitt unglued so you can stick your hand in later. Next, attach a piece of fabric tape along the bottom of the mitt for decoration. Repeat the above steps with the second set of felt rectangles to make a second mitt.

finished mittIf you are attempting this project with a large number of kids, I have a helpful hint to share. Gluing pairs of mitts for close to 20 kids takes some time. To avoid long waits at our hot glue stations, I devised a number system not unlike the “Now Serving” mechanism at delis or bakeries. First, everyone cut their mitts from felt. Then, we handed out a number card to each child, as well as the materials for the next phase of the project – tagboard cookies and decorating supplies.

During the cookie decorating, we called out numbers. When your number was “up,” you paused your decorating and brought your mitts to a hot glue station. We glued your mitts, let you choose from a selection of fabric tape, and then sent you back to your table to resume decorating. Then we called the next number. The system worked like a charm!

numberMaking the cookies is quite simple. Cut the cookie shape from the template, then trace its shape onto the rectangle of tagboard (or brown poster board). You could also use brown construction paper for your cookies, but it helps to use a material like tagboard or poster board to gives the cookies some thickness. We made 3 cookies per kid. We offered markers, self-adhesive foam shapes, patterned tape and dot stickers as cookie decoratives, but you can also just use markers.

cookiesTo finish the project, wrap a corrugated cardboard base with tin foil to create a “baking tray.” Place the cookies on the tray, slip on your mitts, and you’re done!

You can stop here, or you can add a magic oven activity. We happened to have a big box and some cardboard scraps on hand (the scraps were left over from this project), so we made a magic oven.

magic ovenOur box was 18.5″ wide x 18.75″ high x 16″ deep. I cut an oven door in the front, and then Katie added a cardboard shelf inside of the oven, a flat range on top (with 4 paper plate burners), and a splash guard on the back. She tricked it out with red cellophane “heat,” tin foil highlights, and beverage lid knobs faced with large silver embossed foil seals. The over door handle was a paper towel tube wrapped in foil and attached to the door with brass tacks.

The “magic” part of the oven was a small door, cut in the back. This is where I would sneak the cookies in, making them appear magically on the shelf.

magic doorI borrowed a call bell from the library’s circulation desk to act as the oven’s “timer.” During the story time activity, kids wrote their names on the backs of their cookies, then piled the cookies in a big tub next to the oven. Then they sat in a semi-circle around the oven, wearing their mitts and holding their trays.

I would grab a cookie from the tub, silently read the name on the back, and sneak it into the oven. Then I would shout “Dan! Your cookie is ready!” and briskly ding the call bell. Dan would run forward, open the oven, hustle his cookie out, and run back to his place in the semi-circle. We kept going until all the cookies were claimed!

magic oven in use

From Page to Stage

Jillian Snow queenThis month, the Princeton Youth Ballet will be performing its version of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale, The Snow Queen for the fourth year. Risa Kaplowitz, who is the Artistic Director of, and choreographer for, the Princeton Youth Ballet, took some time to chat with me about the challenges and joys of bringing this tale to life through dance.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, The Snow Queen is about a boy named Kai (or Kay) who is first bewitched by magic mirror shards and then abducted by the Snow Queen. Kai’s best friend, Gerda, sets out to rescue him. After escaping a sorceress, receiving advice from a crow (or raven), visiting a palace, being detained by robbers, and gaining a reindeer, Gerda reaches the Snow Queen’s realm. Despite many challenges, Gerda finds Kai, and her warm tears melt the mirror shard embedded in his heart. Dancing in joy, Kai is also freed of the mirror shard in his eye. The two friends (with assistance from a reindeer, a Lapland woman, and a Finland woman) escape the Snow Queen’s palace and return to their homes.

Risa Kaplowitz has also adapted versions of The Secret Garden and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Before co-founding the Princeton Youth Ballet, she was a principal with Dayton Ballet and has also danced with the Houston Ballet, the Pennsylvania Ballet, the Ballet Manhattan, and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet.

What first captivated you about The Snow Queen?

I had the book when I was really young. It was one of those holographic books with a 3-D cover. The story was so captivating. Princeton Youth Ballet had done the Nutcracker, but with 48 Nutcrackers in New Jersey, I said “Enough!” My daughter had my book and said, “What about The Snow Queen?” I picked the book back up and I just saw so many possibilities.

SQ hugI Googled “Snow Queen Ballet” and could find only one ballet version, which had been performed in Europe, and I don’t think it was even a professional company. I also discovered that Disney had been working on a Snow Queen movie for a decade and that they were close to finally making the film. I felt that if Disney was going to make this movie, we had to do the ballet now. So, we preceded Frozen by two years.

In ballet, there are no words, there’s no verbal dialogue, there’s no narrator…it’s the dancers, and music, and visuals. How difficult was it for you to translate the story, and what techniques did you use?

Whenever I adapt a ballet from a book, I read every version, and I watch every movie and musical if there happens to be one. For The Secret Garden, of course, there are musicals, there are movies; there are different versions of the book. I usually start with the abridged version because, essentially, that’s the meat of it. A ballet is like making a movie out of a book – you’re not going to be able to put in every single thing. You have to brush broadly and then fill in with the movement that brings out the characters and narrative in what will hopefully be a more visceral way than even reading a book or watching a movie.

Act2-111Next I build the score. I listen to hundreds of hours of music. For the Snow Queen, I wanted music that evoked a Norwegian feel. I found it in Edvard Grieg. I also use Nikolai Rimsky-Korsadov for the ice castle scenes. I have the sort of brain that when I hear music, a narrative comes to me, so I follow the music’s lead and a narrative arc unfolds along with the characterizations.

I’m fascinated by the process of defining a character with choreography. For example, in Hans Christian Andersen’s story, the Snow Queen is evil. How do you translate that in dance? 

For me, it’s very helpful to have the dancer in my mind. In the case of the Snow Queen, the dancer I thought of when making the ballet was Jillian Davis, a former student who is over six feet tall – on pointe, she is probably six foot six. She is gorgeous with long limbs, and even though she was not always the Snow Queen because of other engagements, I used her as my guide. Although she is now a professional with Complexions Contemporary Dance Company in New York City, she is performing the role for us this year [Editor: Jillian is dancing the role in the first photo of this post].

At times, I made the Snow Queen’s movements very sharp. For example, in an arabesque, when your arms are normally out and very graceful [Risa elevates one arm in front of her and one arm behind her] Instead, I have her do something like this [Risa sharply bends the elbow of her back arm, resembling an archer pulling a bow]. This [indicating the sharp position of her arms] is much stronger and indicative of a spear or an evil instrument. However, I also evoke some quiet movements becomes sometimes the quiet ones are scarier. In the steps and Jillian’s interpretation, she is just pure coldness, yet she is gorgeous.

SQ and KaiWhat is it like to choreograph for the very young children?

Probably the biggest compliment I’ve ever received was when somebody said, “What’s really amazing about your work is that you always make the dancers look good.” And I thought, “Well, doesn’t every choreographer?” And apparently, that’s not the case! [laughs] The tiniest ones, honestly, we spend these nine rehearsal weeks making their runs as beautiful as we possibly can. Holding their backs, holding their stomachs. They are not going to do anything much more than that!  Even when they are still, we teach them to be ballerinas – to have that presence, to have their chest up, their head inclined, and correct body lines. So, for them, it’s more of a matter of my giving them interesting pathways rather than interesting movement.

SnowbeesAs the Artistic Director, you also help develop the costumes for the production. It seems so natural for the snow portions to go with white and filmy…

But we didn’t. We went with blue! Because when you get that cold, ice isn’t white, it’s blue. You become absolutely blue with cold. So the interior of our ice castle scenes are blue and the ice maidens are in blue long tutus with a little silver shimmer on top. The Snow Queen is in white to differentiate herself.

Do you get a chance to watch the audience reacting to your ballet?

After a performance, we always have a meet and greet and I’ve seen kids from the audience who were speechless – really in awe of what they just saw. There are always some characters that they just love to meet, like the robber girl because she is so full of spirit.

Robber girl They are always a bit afraid of approaching the Snow Queen. Even though she’s in this beautiful dress, they sometimes want her to stay away! I like to ask them, “What was your favorite part?” and almost invariably they will say either the robber scene, which is really boisterous and fun. Or they say “The end.” At the end of the ballet, there’s an apotheosis where the ice maidens are taken to heaven by the angels and Gerda and Kai revisit the people who either helped or hindered Gerda in her quest to find Kai.

That’s not in the story, is it? You added that part?

Yes.

That’s beautiful!

Just thinking about the ending gives me chills. You know, last year, when Frozen came out, I told the Princeton Youth Ballet’s board President, “My biggest fear now is that people will be expecting to see Elsa, and they are not going to see Elsa!” [laughs]. It’s definitely not Frozen, but they will see Han Christian Andersen’s amazing story unfold in a beautiful way.

Ice Castle with Kai


Photos by Melissa Acherman, used with permission of the Princeton Youth Ballet.