Lemon Batteries!

©2013 Beret Olsen
©2013 Beret Olsen

(A.K.A. Part Two of Operation Rebuilding)

posted by Beret

Ages: 6 and up

After my recent declaration that taking things apart is the best way to learn how they work, I feel a little sheepish announcing that YOU SHOULD NOT TAKE BATTERIES APART. All is not lost, though. Now that we know what is needed to make an electrical circuit–see part one: energy source, energy path, and energy receivers–let’s build our own battery and put it to work.     Continue reading “Lemon Batteries!”

Life After the Hunger Games: Part One

posted by Gina

Oh, those books that hook all our kids – readers and non-readers alike.  Oh, that wonderful day when your former-book-loather hides beneath the covers to finish a gripping story.  And oh, the joy of a massively popular reader-enticer that’s actually a pretty good book. I am proud to declare myself the resident expert on all things Children and Young Adult Lit, and even prouder to essentially minor in Post-Apocalyptic, Dystopian Teenage Romance.  (There’s quite a market for it, these days.)  As your resident expert, I am here to share my knowledge with you, for that day when your tween, teen, or precocious young reader comes to you – after devouring the Hunger Games trilogy and being disappointed in the film – clamoring for something similar. Let’s begin with one of my favorites:  The Scorpio Races

It’s hard to explain the premise without sounding ridiculous, so when I tell you that it’s about mythical carnivorous water horses being trained for an annual life-changing (sometimes life-ending) race, don’t be put off.  The story is action packed, gritty, dangerous, and an excellent read.

What is to love:

      • Any young person that loves horses will captivated by the scenes of water horse taming, the bond between Sean (our hero) and his dangerous, potentially murderous, charge, and Puck, our plucky, horse-riding heroine.
      • Speaking of, dividing the storyline between the points of view of both a male and female protagonist is nothing but nifty, and offers levels to relate for readers across the board.
      • Edge-of-your-seat excitement!  I literally could not put this book down.  Meals were missed.  Families were ignored.  I was sorry when it was all over.

Now, technically, this isn’t a Post-Apocalyptic Dystopian novel (there are teenagers, and there’s a little romance), but it’s similar enough in feel to hook your Hunger Games lovin’ reader.

Stay tuned for more – because I’ve got ‘em.  This is only Part One, after all.

A last note, when considering The Hunger Games and the age of your child:

Several parents have asked me my thoughts on allowing their kid to read this book.  What I think: The Hunger Games has some scary elements, yes.  But in my opinion, many kids who are reading at this level can handle what’s in this series.  It’s not any more violent or scary than what’s on TV and in a typical Grimm’s Fairy Tale.
What there is: death, kids killing each other, and sadness.  What there isn’t: much in the way of sex, gruesome descriptions of the death and kids killing each other.

And so my response is always this:

Read the book.  You know your kid best and you are in the best place to make this call.  It’s a quick read and a great story, so you might as well.  Watching the movie is not going to help you make this call: the on-screen images are – for whatever reason – more distressing than the print version.  (Also, it’s not as good.)  Think on: what else are they reading and what issues have they encountered there? How have they handled those?  What’s their emotional maturity level?  What other concerns do you have – for example, do you have a child prone to nightmares?  If so, what are the triggers?

I’ve met 3rd Graders who have loved the series, 3rd Graders who have not understood, and 3rd Graders who have been bored.  As a general guideline, I’d put the series at 6th and up – also knowing that a good half of my 5th Graders would have loved it.

Operation Building and Unbuilding: Part One

Why not?
Let’s operate on Operation. Why not?

posted by Beret

Age Range: 7 and up

Things break all of the time at our house. Luckily I’m married to Mr. Fix-it, and very few weeks pass that we don’t put his title to the test. He has tackled the dishwasher, the dryer, the oven, the car, the disposal and–albeit reluctantly–the computer. That sort of tinkering is extremely helpful. When everything seems to be working, however, he finds something unbroken to fix. For example, he is constantly rewiring our home entertainment system so that, yet again, I don’t know how to turn on the TV or work the stereo. I find that irritating. He just finds it unbelievable that I can’t figure it all out myself.

Lately, I have been wondering: what was different about his upbringing that helped him to see the world through the eyes of an engineer?

I asked him what he did in his spare time as a child, and he proceeded to tell me a story about secretly removing the brakes from his bicycle and embarking on a variety of death-defying activities. He was twelve years old. This gave me pause. “You took off your brakes? How did you know how to do that?” “I didn’t,” he said, but that certainly didn’t stop him. He took everything apart: watches, clocks, whatever he could get his hands on.

I THINK THIS IS THE KEY.  Taking things apart is an excellent way to figure out how they work and how you might build or change them. It’s not just my humble opinion, either. I started doing a little research, and discovered all kinds of resources and programs that include tinkering as a way to develop conceptual development.    Continue reading “Operation Building and Unbuilding: Part One”

Once Upon A Time

posted by Gina

My parents are currently wondering why, with fairy-tale-based entertainment being so in vogue (ABC’s “Once Upon a Time”, the Fables graphic novel series, the Hoodwinked movies), I am not actually making some money off my Children’s Literature/Fairy Tale undergrad degree (such a thing exists, yes, and I have one).  “Why aren’t they calling you as a consultant?” my dad wonders aloud.  As do I.

So until a major TV network tracks down my number to ask me to confirm the details of various Cinderella incarnations, let me share with you some favorite fairy tale retellings, spin offs, and modern collections, for the young one in your life who finds the genre as fabulous as I do.

First, the picture books:

Chances are you’re familiar with Jon Scieska’s marvelous The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, and The Frog Prince Continued, but if you’re not, let me recommend these here.  Both make excellent writing prompts: one inspires a retelling of any favorite tale from the ‘villain’s’ point of view, one a reflection on what might really happen past that happily ever after.  (In addition, John Scieszka and Lane Smith collaborated on the very wonderful The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Talesalso worth a gander.)

And onto the Chapter Books:

The Great Good Thing, by Roderick Townley tells both a fairy tale and the story of what book characters do when no one is reading them.  There is nothing not lovely about this book.

For updated retellings, giving us additional insight into plot and character, consider Just Ella, by Margaret Peterson Haddix, The Goose Girl, by Shannon Hale, or Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine (and let us never speak of the film version, please).

Speaking of Gail Carson Levine, there aren’t many better fairy-tale-ers out there.  A marvelous storyteller, Ella Enchanted is but one of her many wonderful books.  Fairest, a Snow White retelling, takes place in the same world as Ella Enchanted, and The Two Princesses of Bamarre and A Tale of Two Castles are both strong stories with fun, underdog heroines.

And speaking of magnificent storytellers – if you don’t yet know the magic that is Joan Aiken, run for your library.  Her collections of original fairy tales are unexpected, lovely, and magical.  The Last Slice of Rainbow and Not What You Expected (both out of print, but around on used book sites and in libraries) are two of my favorites.

And finally, for yourself or your older kiddo, ponder the powerful Briar Rose, by Jane Yolen, a retelling of  Sleeping Beauty intertwined with one woman’s experience in a concentration camp.  And let this lead you to other works by Jane Yolen, which run the gamut from picture books to fairy tales to King Arthur.  Any fairy tale lover not yet acquainted with Ms. Yolen has a fantastic journey before them.

Any other favorite fairy tale inspired children’s or young adult literature?  Let us know!

Beret says:  It figures that a visual artist would remember fairy tales for the pictures, and not the story.

An illustration from Trina Schart Hyman's Snow White.
An illustration from Trina Schart Hyman’s Snow White.

My favorite of all time is Snow White, translated from the Brothers Grimm by Paul Heins and, more importantly, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. She also did a jaw-droppingly lovely rendition of The Sleeping Beauty. Here is a little gallery of her illustrations to give you a sense of her style. To me, everyone else’s illustrations pale in comparison.

Relief Maps

©2012 Beret Olsen

posted by Beret

Age Range:  5 to adult

Have you ever spear-headed a flour-paste project that festered, rather than drying properly? I’ve set up fans to speed the drying process. I’ve tried adding salt as a preservative–to no effect. I’ve even added a little cinnamon to help mask any ensuing aroma. Unfortunately, I now associate that spice with a classroom closet full of rotting papier-mâché planets.

Still, kids love doing these sorts of projects, so I was gearing up for another potentially malodorous round of flour dough relief maps. Luckily, someone revealed to me the secret of all such three-dimensional projects:  plaster cloth.    Continue reading “Relief Maps”

Invisible Ink – That Works

posted by Gina

Age Range: 5 and up

How many of us have been sorely disappointed with the lemon-juice-and-candle invisible ink of myth and legend?  If your attempts were like mine, the paper would catch fire before a message appeared.  Besides, any secret messages written under careful adult supervision kind of defied the purpose.  In theory, a hot light bulb will achieve the same effect.  In reality, not always – especially with today’s energy-saving bulbs.

Just to be sure we remembered our previous failures correctly, my brave assistants and I set to work with lemon juice and a light bulb. As we suspected, little happened, other than my assistants growing bored with the entire process and wandering away.

But fear not, my secret-message-writing friends!  A tipster pointed me towards an invisible ink that does, in fact work each time.  Better still – no flames or hot bulbs are required, making this experiment one that does not need extinguishers at the ready.   Continue reading “Invisible Ink – That Works”

Book Recommendation: A Whole Nother Story

posted by Beret

Title:  A Whole Nother Story

Author:  probably not anyone named Dr. Cuthbert Soup

Reading level:  4th grade and up

Genre:  Unsure

Quite frankly, it is hard to know just how to categorize A Whole Nother Story. The Library of Congress has filed it under “inventions and spies,” as well as a host of perplexingly random and uninteresting categories such as “moving (household),” and “automobile travel.”

In my opinion, such an unorthodox story begs a far less rational sort of description. Let’s begin instead with an abridged list of ingredients.

Inside A Whole Nother Story you will find:

  • “three attractive, polite, and relatively odor-free children”
  • a time machine which may or may not work
  • an evil villain named Mr. 5
  • an international super spy and his monkey-sucking machine
  • a hairless dog with psychic abilities


  • a sock puppet named Steve.

If the above list intrigues you and/or some of the small people in your life, I can’t imagine why you are still reading this inane blurb instead of running out to get your grubby hands on your own copy.

Now, for those of you who may need a bit more cajoling:    Continue reading “Book Recommendation: A Whole Nother Story”

The Aftermath: Repurposing Those Sweet Treats

©2012 Beret Olsen

posted by Beret

Age Level:  Any

I’m a huge fan of Halloween.  It’s a festive, fabulous holiday without the baggage and stressful travel.  Sure, I had my candy stolen once or twice, and there were a couple of costume disappointments, but the pure pleasure of carousing after dark as a child–dressed as my alter ego–outweighed any of that.  I love the whole wacky mess of it.


I’m not so wild about the morning after.  Everyone is tired and cranky.  Work and school go on as usual.  And then, there’s the CANDY.  What to do with that boatload of sugar?    Continue reading “The Aftermath: Repurposing Those Sweet Treats”

On Loss, Grief, Cats, and Picture Books

posted by Gina

Stella Cat turned 16 in August.  We brought her home from the pound when I was just a few months out of college, so small she slept in her food dish.  She’s seen me through love, loss, divorce, uncertainty, joy, and a cross-country move.  She is the love of my life.  She is not doing very well this week.

The vet is cautiously optimistic, but I know that even if she comes home this time, I’m facing the reality of losing her in the fairly near future.

Stella Cat, studiously ignoring the paparazzi.

In many ways, for many of us, these loves are more personal, more profound, than any other relationships we have.  For those without a pet, there are no words to explain this strangely deep and meaningful connection.  The logical triviality of it (“it’s just a pet!”) doesn’t measure up to this kind of grief.    Continue reading “On Loss, Grief, Cats, and Picture Books”

Duct Tape Wallets

©2012 Beret Olsen

posted by Beret

Age Range:  7 and up, although kids under ten will need a fair amount of assistance getting their tape strips to behave.

Perhaps due to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s famed duct tape alert, I started buying duct tape long before I knew what to do with it besides tape stuff together.  I had rolls and rolls of it just laying around, waiting for something to break.  Thank goodness a friend of mine was trapped in her house with two kids for several very long and rainy days.  She’s the one who gave me a few ideas to get started.

The great thing is that duct tape is like legos.  You can make anything with it, from flip flops to prom dresses.    Continue reading “Duct Tape Wallets”

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