Program: Spies and Codes

Let’s be honest, here: the tweens are always my favorites. Here at my new job, I’m lucky enough to get to work with them again! Unlike my last library, here they do programs in six-week sessions. This has been an interesting new challenge for me. I’m used to planning a handful of one-off programs each month for a variety of ages. Now I have to plan six weeks of thematically consistent programs, called “Club 36” – in other words, an after-school cub for grades 3-6.

Turns out it’s pretty hard to come up with a topic that has enough juice to entertain picky tweens for six straight weeks. (For the first session, we tried doing the Wayside School books – some readers theater, some sideways arithmetic, and we built our very own miniature Wayside School – but the kids, and I, got bored after a few weeks.)

The good news is, the people in my department are rock stars who know everything, and one of them suggested a spy program. A spy program! I love spies! Thus: Spies & Codes.

We had an AWESOME time doing this program. Best of all, it cost almost nothing to run. Here’s the run-down of what we did:

Week One: Spies
To start off the program, we talked about spies! We learned about some real-life spies, as well as some of our favorite fictional spies. We talked about what kinds of skills spies need to have, and what their jobs are like. We made a list of famous spies and important spy attributes Finally, we came up with our own secret identities – code names, nationalities, and more – to use for the rest of the program.

Week Two: Disguise
For the second week, I brought in a lot of stuff from home, as did some of my co-workers. We had wigs, different sunglasses, lots of weird old clothes, and some fake mustaches. Each kid used this stuff to create a disguise that fit their secret identity from the week before, and then we took pictures of the disguised tweens to put on their Spy IDs. We also practiced disguising our voices! We tried different accents, making our voices super high or super low, and so on.

Week Three: Spy Skills
Spies have to be keen observers of the world around them! We played Where’s Waldo and Spot the Difference. Then we talked about reading and making maps. The kids made maps of the library and the neighborhood and practiced giving directions to each other.

Week Four: Secret Hiding Places
Craft day! Using weeded books from the adult reference section, we (…the adults) used an exacto knife to cut a hole in the middle of the book for treasures. We spent the rest of class decorating our treasure boxes.

Week Five: Codes and Hidden Messages
This week we tried our hands at codebreaking and writing secret messages. Kids practiced a couple ways of passing secret messages (writing in lemon juice and on rubber bands!) Then we talked about different kinds of codes and wrote coded messages to our friends.

Week Six: Spy Graduation
Using borrowed walkie-talkies (thanks Kim!), kids completed a treasure hunt using their codebreaking and map-reading skills!
At the end of the six weeks, each kid got to take home an official, confidential “spy dossier” with their spy passports, secret identity worksheets, and book treasure boxes.

Spy/Mystery books:
The Name of this Book is Secret
The Mysterious Benedict Society
Nancy Drew
Encyclopedia Brown
The Hardy Boys
Scooby Doo
The Boxcar Children
Echo Falls mysteries

Program: Winter Craft

This program was for kids in K-3rd, which was a little young for the craft I had planned – they suggest that it’s an “easy” craft for kids ages 6 and up, but that’s a stretch. I had some games and a story ready, but the craft took us 45 minutes, and my teen volunteers and I were kept busy assisting with the craft.

Here are the instructions for the paper cup reindeer. We had all of these supplies lurking around in our basement, so I figured it’d be an easy one to prep. Not so much. It turns out that tempera paint doesn’t play nice with styrofoam cups. I painted one to use as a sample, and as soon as it dried, the paint started flaking off in chunks. AWESOME. With no other paint available to me, and not enough time (or material) to just cover the cups in brown felt, I decided the kids would color their cups brown…with markers. Classy. (They didn’t look as bad as all that, really. The kids were very happy to show them off to their parents and siblings, which is always a good sign.)

We also had to use glue dots for the eyes and – wait for it! – the jingle bell. You may not see a jingle bell on the original craft – we had a ton left over from Christmas last year, so we made our reindeer EXTRA FESTIVE by adding a felt collar and jingle bell to the bottom of the cup. There is nothing I love more than sending kids home with a noisy toy…

Especially when the kids are also on a sugar high! After we finished our reindeer, we waited for the glue to dry by eating snowmen. We stacked some jumbo and regular-sized marshmallows using pretzel sticks, then attached mini-M&M eyes and buttons using frosting. The kids ate their crafts (and mine – I don’t eat marshmallows), and then asked for more frosting and M&Ms. Since they were about to go home with their parents, I figured they could have as much sugar as they wanted.

And they did. The end.

Tween Book Club: The Lemonade War

They hated this book. Seriously: not one of them liked it. Apparently it was “the most boring book EVER.” A couple of them stopped halfway through (and they only got that far because they thought I would make the snacks contingent on their passing a quiz – something I’ve done before, because I’m evil). The rest finished it out of sheer determination, but apparently hated it the entire time. Oops. I thought it was cute. (Whatever – they voted for it, so they can’t complain too much.) With that said, the situations in this book yielded a lot of interesting discussion – everyone has opinions about siblings and money – so it was worthwhile anyway.

And for the record, they did like the math contest.

The Lemonade War, by Jacqueline Davies

1. Why was Evan so upset about having Jessie in his class? How would you feel if your younger sister or brother skipped up to your grade?

2. Did either of them go too far in their attempts to win the contest?

3. What do you think about Megan? Is she a nice girl? Do you think she and Jessie will stay friends during the school year?

4. At the beginning of the book, Evan is good at making friends and talking to people, but not so good at school. Jessie is great at math and other school work, but doesn’t have many friends and has a tough time understanding people’s feelings. Do either of them change during the book? How?

5. Evan and Jessie try very hard to hide their fights from their mother. Why do they do this? Do you think it’s a good or bad thing that they keep their arguments private?

6. Evan puts his money into an iPod fund; Jessie decides to donate hers to charity. If you made $100 through your own hard work, what would you spend it on?


1. Comment cards! When Megan and Jessie become friends, Megan writes her a “comment card” that talks about what she likes about her new friend. Write some nice things about your assigned person on a comment card. Then we are going to SHARE THEM.

2. MATH PROBLEMS! This is a book all about math, soooo…we’re going to have a math contest. And you’re going to like it. 😀

Helpful stuff: There are a lot of teacher’s guides with discussion questions and activities at the book’s website, Houghton-Mifflin’s website, and some other random places.

Program: Once Upon a Time

If you love books about dragons and witches, daring adventures, and knights and princesses, this is the program for you. We’ll play games, make a craft, and talk all about our favorite fantasy books.

Grades: K-5

Budget: $20

Attendance: 18 (with four volunteers)


For this program, we split the kids into two teams (red and blue) as they entered the room. All of the games were played in teams.

Balloon Joust: I hung four red and four blue balloons in two rows from the ceiling (about 10 feet apart). One kid from each team was blindfolded and given a foam sword. With their teammates giving them directions, the two jousters raced to hit all of their team’s balloons. Loud, but fun.

Fantasy Match: Each team was given 20 cards: 10 heroes and 10 villains from well-known fairy tales. The first team to match the villains to the correct heroes won.


Sock puppet dragon, from Activity Village: I bought a bunch of kids’ socks at the dollar store – I needed 20 socks, so I bought 12 pairs just to be safe. Total cost? $3, and the socks came in a variety of bright colors and patterns. We cut out wings and flames from card stock – I love fun foam, too, but it’s pricey and doesn’t glue down as easily as card stock. We did this craft as an assembly line – I had enough teen volunteers to staff each station, so the kids didn’t have to wait too long. Older participants pretty much did the craft on their own.

Magic wand: We did use the fun foam for this one.  To start, each kid wrapped some metallic ribbon around a small wooden dowel, with both ends held down by double-sided tape. We cut out one star per kid (if you have a star die-cut, USE IT) and let them decorate the star, then glued it to the top of the dowel. If you cut out two stars per kid, you can put them back-to-back and the wands will look nicer, but again, it was a cost issue. (They loved them anyway. Who doesn’t love a magic wand?)

Storytime: Happy Halloween!

Oh, so did I mention that today I did three storytimes AND an hour-long program for grade-school kids? No? That’s probably because I didn’t know I was doing those things, either. But it’s all good.

Today and tomorrow, my supervisor and I are going over to the park district’s preschool to read some Halloween stories. Good thing there are, like, twenty million awesome books about Halloween.

My first storytime this morning was not great. I hadn’t done a storytime in a year and a half, and I’d forgotten some of the most important rules of storytime:

1. Don’t let anyone touch the puppets unless you’re prepared to have everyone touch the puppets. As soon as one kid touches the puppet, it’s all over. I like letting everyone come up at the end to touch/hug/get a kiss from the puppet, but having it happen in the middle of storytime is super disruptive. Also, keep the puppets in your bag when you’re not using them, or risk being treated to a rousing chorus of, “BUT I WANT TO MEET THE PUPPET NOW!”

2. Don’t ask open-ended questions during a story (it’s fine at the beginning when you’re chatting with the kids). Questions with one-word answers are usually okay, although even that can have dire consequences. (Try “Does anyone have pets?” Seriously, I dare you. Try it.)

3. Have a very clear introduction and conclusion. Introduce yourself, tell the kids about the library (Have you been to the library? Do you know what we have at the library?), and sing some kind of hello song. At the end, sing a goodbye song (I like to use the “hello” song with some words changed out), give puppet kisses, and then get out.

…well, anyway, after that first storytime (in which I failed to follow any of those rules), I got back on my game. The afternoon went a lot better. What did we read?

Continue reading “Storytime: Happy Halloween!”

Tween Book Club: Gregor the Overlander/A Crooked Kind of Perfect

This meeting was a little tricky, because these two books have pretty much nothing in common. Why did we read them both, you ask? Oh, the trials and tribulations of having kids with wildly divergent reading tastes!

A few times a year, I booktalk a few options to the kids and have them vote on what they’d like to read. There are usually some choices that are universally popular – we always want to read the latest Wimpy Kid book – and a few total flops. In our last voting session, something new happened: we had two books that were EXTREMELY popular with half the kids, and EXTREMELY unpopular with the other half. (Example: I have them write in their rankings from 1 (most want to read) to 8 (least want to read) and I had one girl write “800 TRILLION” underneath Gregor. Ouch.) Usually we get a combination of popular and neutral, or totally neutral, or totally unpopular, all of which are easier to deal with. This time, though, I had two groups of kids who would be seriously disappointed if I didn’t choose their favorite option.

So I chose both.

At the time, this seemed like a great idea. Everyone wins!

…not so much.

I hadn’t considered the logistics of actually running a meeting where the kids were discussing totally different books. At first I thought about breaking the kids into two groups and appointing one kid from each group as a discussion leader, but I’m not that optimistic. Discussions derail quickly enough when I’m the one moderating. Then I considered making each group write a booktalk to convince the other group to read their book. This worried me a little: since I never know who’s going to show up to a given meeting, I couldn’t be sure that each group would have kids who are comfortable writing and presenting. So what’s a tween librarian to do?

A trivia contest, of course! I love trivia contests for a lot of reasons:

1. They allow kids to participate as much or as little as they want to (provided you’re playing in groups, which I always do).

2. Success requires the kids to have actually read the book.

3. Everyone loves a little healthy competition! (Well, almost everyone. More on that later.)

When the tweens arrived, they split into teams. Because (miraculously) all of the kids had finished their books, I did end up having both teams summarize their books. It went better than expected, though I’m not sure anyone was convinced to read the other book. We then went on to the trivia contest, which the Gregor team won overwhelmingly. (Really overwhelmingly.)

The best part of the meeting, though, was something I’ve never tried before. We’ve gotten tons of new middle-grade books in the last few weeks, and they haven’t been getting as much attention as I’d like – our “new book” shelf is sort of hidden in the back of the room. I brought a bunch of the new books upstairs, then had each kid pick a book. They had five minutes to read the summary of the book and skim its contents (looking for illustrations, size of type, length of chapters, etc.), after which they each presented their book to the group. They actually seemed to enjoy doing it, and all of the books except one were checked out by a book club member, so I’m counting that as a success.

The dreaded craft program

I think I have a lot of good qualities as a librarian. I’m good with computers, I read a lot, I’m patient, I like people – et cetera.

However, I am terrible at crafts.

I mean really terrible. Sufficiently terrible that when the kids find out I’m doing a craft program, they say, “Why are you doing a craft program?? Can’t [more talented co-worker] do it?”

In fairness, that more talented co-worker is exceptionally talented. Kids who attend her craft programs leave with something that you’d pay $20 for at an art fair. We keep trying to convince her to write a book, and that book would be a godsend to crafty types everywhere. I don’t think my crafts would look half so bad if they weren’t being compared to hers.

But, you know, they are. And now I have a reputation for making terrible crafts. I’ve had some successes – I’m still proud of the Spongebob ornaments – but I’ve had a number of misfires, too. The worst of these, and the reason the kids dread my craft programs so much, took place during a Valentine’s day program. Talented co-worker had given me what she described as “an incredibly easy” craft project for them. There was just one tricky thing – the paper had to be folded a certain way before you glued everything together. Other than that, she said, I couldn’t mess it up.

HA. Of course, after being specifically warned about this one tricky thing, I did it exactly wrong, and twenty kids held up these weird glob-shaped things that should have been adorable heart mobiles. One of my regulars now chants, “Don’t screw up!” every time I’m gluing something at the desk.

So now the kids dread my craft programs, and frankly, so do I. If I don’t have an Oriental Trading kit to fall back on, a lot of my crafts lately have been things that you actually can’t screw up – like my back-to-school program last month, where I bought a bunch of foam shapes and told them to decorate a ten-cent folder. Woohoo.

I realized yesterday that I was supposed to do a craft program today. Worse: a tween craft program. I can get away with “gluing stuff to other stuff” crafts with the little kids, but the tweens will not tolerate it. With no theme and no ideas, I figured I’d go to Michaels before work and hope for the best.

Believe it or not, it worked out. You guys, I love Michaels. They had all these wooden things – little boxes, picture frames, doll furniture, whatever – for a dollar each. That was pretty much my budget. I bought a bunch of frames and a bunch of the little boxes, put them out on the table with some paints and more stick-on foam things – so basically the same thing as the folder craft, but with nicer base materials – and they loved it. Word to the wise, though: the little boxes are not jewelry boxes, as much as they might look like it. They are treasure boxes, and even the boys were fighting over them. (One kid painted his black on the outside and dark red on the inside, and said it was a vampire coffin. Ooookay.)

I realize that “wait until the last second and then go to the craft store and buy whatever is on sale” is maybe not the best lesson to take from my experience, but it’s the one I got. I will never fear crafts again.

Tween Book Club: Graduation

At my library, there are two book clubs: Tween Book Club, for kids in grades 4-6, and Teen Book Club, for teens in grades 6-12. When I took over the Tween Book Club two years ago, my group was comprised almost entirely of fourth graders. The teens were mostly eighth and ninth graders. Things worked out swimmingly…for a while.

As my kids have gotten older, they’ve wanted more mature and difficult books to read. The same thing has happened with the teens. The problem, of course, is that the age ranges of these clubs are really broad. Tween BC originally included third graders – they got dropped last year because it was just too difficult to find material that was stimulating and appropriate for eight-year-olds and twelve-year-olds. (With the exception of the Wimpy Kid books, which everyone loves.) And now, four of the girls from my group have “aged out” of Tween BC. I can’t keep them – trying to accommodate seventh and fourth graders brings back the problems we had with the third grade kids – but they don’t all feel comfortable transitioning to the teen group, because most of the members are juniors in high school.

Last summer, we tried to start a middle school book club, but attendance was low and 100% redundant with the other two clubs, so we dropped it. Now I’m starting to think that we should reconsider. I would love for our third graders to have a book club again, for one thing. Plus, it would definitely ease the transition – it’s a pretty big jump to go from The Hoboken Chicken Emergency (our book for this month) to the five-hundred-page paranormal romances that are popular in the teen group. By adding a middle school group (thus making the grades for each group 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12), we would be better able to find materials that suit everyone’s skill levels and interests.

For today, though, my seventh-grade girls will get a very charming cardstock graduation cap, and we’ll send them off to the teens.

Book Club: Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life

Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, by Wendy Mass

1. What did you think about Jeremy and Lizzy’s friendship? How do you think it will change as they get older? How did the arrival of the new neighbors, Samantha and Rick, change their friendship?

2. Do you think Jeremy ‘s dad really was destined to die before he turned 40? Did hearing the prophecy as a teenager make his life better or worse? What would you do if a fortune teller told you that you would die when you were 40 years old?

3. What do you think Jeremy learned from Mr. Oswald (the pawn shop owner)? What about the people he visited to return the items they had pawned? How did they feel about the decisions they had made?

4. Were you surprised to learn the truth about the keys and Jeremy’s quest? Do you think that the adults should have told him the truth earlier? What about Lizzy’s decision to keep the final key from him until his birthday?

5. Jeremy decides not to tell Lizzy the truth about her last playing card. Why? Do you think he made the right decision?

    Activities (from here and here – this second link is Wendy Mass’s ed guide, which is super helpful)

    1. When Jeremy finally opens the box, he finds a pile of rocks – each one signifying an important moment in his dad’s life. If you were to make a box of your most important memories, what moments would you put inside it? What items could you use to represent those memories?

    2. Imagine a situation in which you would have to sell your most prized possession. What would you sell, and what reason can you think of to sell it? Fill out one of Mr. Oswald’s pawn shop forms.

    3. Playing cards! OR Hula hoop contest! (They picked the hula hoop contest. Everyone was VERY happy.)