Sunday, December 24, 2006

Books (July 2004)

How do you find books for the readers in your family? In sixth grade, I had a school librarian extraordinaire. Our building was brand new, and so was the library – not a thing on the shelves. Every week, the librarian unpacked another shipment of books. And every week, when my class came in for library time, there she’d be with another novel of fantasy and adventure set aside, just for me.

Such personalized service is getting harder to come by, but luckily the Web offers a host of features that are almost as good. The most obvious, of course, are found on and the other popular online booksellers, such as Barnes and Noble and Powells. Look up a book you’re curious about, or one you know you enjoyed, and you’ll be presented with computer-generated information on similar books that interested other customers, as well as customer-created lists of similar books they recommend. If you’re wondering whether your 10-year-old is ready for that children’s classic you loved when you were his age, or if your favorite author’s latest lives up to her previous work, online booksellers let you check what other readers have to say about it. Most importantly, they’ll tell you what the blurbs from Hornbook or School Library Journal can’t: whether the book really grabs young readers, not just if it’s “good for them.”

There are websites dedicated to helping families find books that are fun and rewarding. Many parents turn to the book catalog Chinaberry, started by a mom looking for “positive and uplifting” books for her own children, specifically for their intimate, in-depth reviews, sorted by age from birth to teens to adults. Jim Trelease’s newest edition of “The Read-Aloud Handbook” has just come out; go to his website and click on “The Treasury” to sample books for families perfect for sharing. I love former teacher and school librarian Esme Raji Codell’s sassy style; the author of “How to Get Your Child to Love Reading” has written some wonderful books of her own, and shares her favorite reads on The site Reading Pen Pals, created by teacher Justine Henning, offers reviews of great fiction and nonfiction, like Harriet the Spy and Fast Food Nation, listed by title and author. Adult reviewers not only encourage young readers to draw on their background knowledge, make connections between themselves and the story’s characters, and compare themes with those in other books, they’ll often respond to kids who send in their own opinions.

But don’t count libraries out: their websites often link to great reading resources, and they’re the best place to let kids do their own searches. The Juvenile Series and Sequels Database of the Mid-Continent Public Library in Missouri, with over 22,000 titles, can satisfy the craving for “More!” whether it’s Amelia Bedelia or The X-Files. Series are classified as Juvenile Easy, for young readers just beginning to read, Juvenile, appropriate for grade school through junior high, and Young Adult, for high school-aged readers. And if your teens are ready for books that push the limits of young adult fiction, point them towards Reading Rants, a website created by New York City school librarian Jennifer Hubert for kids who are wondering if there's life after Judy Blume and Brian Jacques. Jen’s lists have names like Graphic Fantastic, Fanging Around (vampire stories), and Nail Biters (teen thrillers) – they’re not for the faint of heart.

If that’s STILL not enough, check out the links on the Saratoga Springs Public Library’s Reading Central webpage. There’s BookLetters, with reviews, interviews and discussion guides; a whole page of Websites for Readers, from The New York Times to Sparknotes, and including teen, romance, and mystery fan sites; a link to the quirky “Who Reads What?” site, where you can find out what’s on the nightstand of everyone from Kofi Annan to Raquel Welch; and much more. In fact, thanks to the Internet, you’ve got the nearest thing to my sixth grade librarian right on your computer, 24/7. And she’s never too busy to help!

Online Reading Bonus! Get a preview of the marvelous Daniel Pinkwater’s upcoming novel The Neddiad -- “My best work so far,” the author promises -- at Chapters have been posted weekly since August, and will continue until its publication in April 2007. There's also a forum for your comments -- and Pinkwater, the "Grand Poohbah," will respond!

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Medieval Monsters (October 2006)

If you think King Kong, Jurassic Park, and Ghostbusters make this the era of terrifying creatures, you should have been around in the Middle Ages. In Medieval times the popular culture was full of Fantastical Beasts derived from Greek myth, pagan traditions, and voyagers with overactive imaginations. “Here be dragons” was the label mapmakers put at the edge of the known world, and art, literature, and even architecture were covered with images of sea serpents, unicorns and gargoyles. So, since this is the season for frightful fun, let’s explore some of these classic ghouls ... if you dare.

Gargoyles, of course, are those stony monsters that served as rainspouts on Gothic cathedrals all over Europe. (In fact, the word “gargoyle” is related to “gargle,” which makes them seem less scary already.) No one really knows why they were put there, but they’re so much fun for stone carvers to create, and other people to find, that they’ve been included in buildings right through the 20th century. Sculptor Joe Chiffriller offers virtual tours of ancient gargoyles in London, Paris, and Florence, but as sites like New York Carver and The Monster Walks prove, there are plenty of roof-top surprises much closer to home. I used to work at night on Wall Street, and I’ll never forget the shock of walking through a nearly-empty office on the top floor of the Woolworth Building and spying a weird figure right outside the window.

One of the most comprehensive gargoyle sites on the Web belongs to Chicago stone carver Walter S. Arnold, who trained in Italy and produced more than 90 of the 112 architectural carvings on the Washington National Cathedral. He’s got pictures showing show how gargoyles are created from start to finish. The National Cathedral itself has downloadable pages describing its gargoyles and identifying the recognizable models, including Darth Vader.

Even though the website doesn’t show it, visitors to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts know that climbing on the 7-foot-high pillar of gargoyle, created by the illustrator’s son, Peter Rockwell, is a must. (You can see other examples of his sculpture at the website of St. Paul’s Within the Walls American Episcopal Church in Rome.) Also nearby in Troy, New York, more than 100 gargoyles frolic all around the campus of Emma Willard School, including 30 running, bowling, wrestling, and somersaulting goblins on the former gym, and lively portraits of Teddy Roosevelt, George Washington and Abe Lincoln. The school’s website points them out for you.

If that’s not enough, the students of Marshall Middle School in Wisconsin have created a gargoyles, cathedrals and castles links page as part of their study of the Middle Ages. Or try some gargoyle crafts at home: Sculpey, the clay that hardens when baked, has directions for creating a mini-gargoyle, or make a “stone” gargoyle costume using directions from the archives of FamilyFun magazine.

But maybe gruesome isn’t your style. In that case, you might want to explore Medieval renditions of unicorns and dragons. The magical unicorn, with its regal horse-like body and majestic horn, appeared in legend, song, and wonderful tapestries of the period. The Hunt of the Unicorn series at The Cloisters, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, can be read just like a comic strip as it follows the pursuit and capture of the elusive beast. A slide show narrated by Museum Director Philippe de Montebello tells the whole story on The Met’s website. Or learn about another famous tapestry series, The Lady and The Unicorn, from the (English-language) website of the Musée national du Moyen Âge in Paris. The legend of Saint George, the patron saint of England, slaying a dragon inspired many Medieval paintings, and the National Gallery of Art takes a thorough look at a version by Rogier van der Weyden from 1435.

Of course there were no DVDs in the Middle Ages, so where did Europeans go when they wanted a good horror story? To Bestiaries, or books about beasts. Here were gathered stories about dragons, unicorns and other fearsome animals, along with more gentle creatures like the barnacle goose, which grew from the branches of trees and dropped into the water when mature, all with elaborate illustrations. You can share their terror and delight at The Medieval Bestiary, an online project of Canadian David Badke. You may never scream at the sight of a mere movie monster again.

Family Online Picks:

New York Carver

Monster Walks

Walter S. Arnold

Washington National Cathedral

Peter Rockwell (

Emma Willard School

Gargoyles and Cathedrals(

Sculpey Gargoyles (

Gargoyle Costume (

The Hunt of the Unicorn (

The Lady and the Unicorn (

Saint George and the Dragon (;

The Medieval Bestiary (

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Urban Legends (Feb. 2003)

I’m lucky. I hardly ever get spam, the email equivalent of junk mail, clogging up my mailbox. But what I do get, on a regular basis, are emails people forward me with stuff I just don’t want to read.

Sometimes they’re messages warning that my computer’s been infected with the Teddy Bear virus, or urging me to avoid antiperspirant or heating cups of water in the microwave. Others promise free goodies, like a $50 coupon for dinner at Applebees or new Nikes just for forwarding the message to “everyone I know.” Some want me to forward a picture of a lost little girl, or help a dying boy collect the world’s largest number of emails. A few have tried to get me to add my name to chain letter, or an email petition to save public radio or allow prayer in schools. And then there’s the jokes – don’t get me started on those!

Even if every one of these emails, written by people I’ve never met and forwarded to me by well-meaning friends, relatives and acquaintances, were filled with absolutely vital information, I still wouldn’t want to read them. I prefer to get my news from sources I know, which is why I’ve always used mainstream media outlets --TV, newspaper and radio websites -- as my home page. For the past few years I’ve used Google News because , which carries stories from thousands of newspapers and TV stations around the world. I can check the headlines several times a day just by going online.

But the fact is, almost every forwarded email I’ve ever gotten is either inaccurate, an outright hoax, or an Urban Legend. How do I know? Whenever I get one of these things, I check it with the experts: David Emery’s Urban Legends and Folklore section on and the Urban Legends Reference Pages run by Barbara and David Mikkelson at

Long before the Web existed, I discovered the Urban Legend phenomena in some great books by folklore specialist Jan Harold Brunvand. ULs are easy to spot, once you know the signs: they’re neat little stories about a celebrity or a friend of a friend (FOAF, in ULese) that have some kind of a twist, usually with a moral, at the end. According to Brunvand, some of these whoppers, like The Vanishing Hitchhiker, a “ghost story” you may have heard as a kid, trace their ancestry back to the Dark Ages. But now that we’re in the Digital Age, tales that once took years to circle the globe now take mere days via email. and Snopes are the best of the UL and hoax websites because they keep track of the latest emails to make the rounds AND they check with the people or companies involved to find out what the real story is, with links to online newspaper articles or official statements where you can see for yourself. Both have archives where you can look up that old classic that may have landed in your mailbox years after it started. Other UL sites exist, but many of them aim more for humor than verification. (One entire site is dedicated to variations on the famous email scam from Nigeria which asks strangers to help sneak money out of the country in exchange for a “reward.”)

You can also do your own sleuthing. The email I got promising a free meal at Applebees included a bogus “link” to the company’s website. I went to the real website and found a pop-up box which described the email as a hoax. Any new, legitimate virus alerts are sure to show up on the Microsoft website or any reputable high-tech news source. Norton, the anti-virus software, also lists hoaxes. For the government’s take on health-related stories, go to the Centers for Disease Control website .

So what about that caution about anti-perspirant causing breast cancer? Ignore it. The kidnapping? Never happened. That dying kid? He got better years ago, and the continuing flood of emails have caused the charity’s website to crash more than once. And the Teddy Bear virus? It works by convincing YOU to delete a perfectly normal Windows file.

As for those chain letters and petitions -- who’s really collecting your name and address, and what for? And those jokes … well, let’s just say people have different ideas of what’s funny.

Please – think twice before forwarding an email to everyone you know. Chances are good everyone doesn’t really want it.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Paper Models (December 2004)

Before you even start reading this column, you might as well dash out for some card stock and a fresh color ink cartridge, because your printer is about to get a workout. Whether you and your kids are into space ships, fancy buildings, amazing moving contraptions or cute animals, make-your-own paper models you can print off the Web are like having the world’s largest toy factory right in your computer. Keep these links on hand for a boring winter afternoon, and in no time everyone from toddlers to grownups will be happily cutting and pasting away. They’re irresistible.

We started making paper models as hands-on projects in math, science and social studies, but now we make them just for fun. The first models we made, and good practice for novice model-makers, are geometric nets. (A net is what you’d get if you ran over a three-dimensional shape with a steamroller.) Cut the net out, fold and tape or glue the edges together, and you’ve got your original shape back – but you don’t have to settle for the plain solids we started with. Jill Britton’s Polyhedra Pastimes activities page has links to sites with dodecahedrons covered in tessellated (interlocking) designs and multi-colored magic fortunetellers (#4), folding and unfolding cubes (#27) and lots of other cool stuff.

Once you’ve got the basics down, you’re ready to move onto planes, trains, buses, rockets, robots, and castles – an entire universe of paper objects just waiting to be printed and put together, some of it intricately detailed. Fantasy game players and LOTR fans can find environments for their characters to live (and battle) in, while model railroad builders can fill in their landscapes with HO-scale stores and houses. Some good places to look for links are Free Paper Toys, which says its listings are “100% Kid Safe;” the Paper Model WebRing, featuring sites from around the world; and 3D Paper Model, a site based in Taiwan. Don’t fret if the model you want is printed in Japanese, German or another foreign language. It’s not that hard to follow the directions solely from looking at the diagrams (Lego maniacs do it all the time). And it’s interesting to peek at pop culture from other countries. Just as the U.S. has bobblehead dolls of famous athletes, in Japan “hako,” or box-headed figures are all the rage. There are hako cartoon stars like Superman and Sailor Moon, as well as caricatures of known artists and world leaders.

NASA offers dozens of paper models of spacecraft, including the Cassini/Huygens spacecraft now orbiting Saturn. There’s a list of links to models at NASA’s Solar System website kids page. (NASA’s Spacelink website also has models tied to lessons on flight, but some of the files are 100 pages or more.)

Paper Toys, designed by a Texas man calling himself “Papermeister Dooney,” is a good site for models of buildings like the Sydney Opera House, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, and Bill Gates’ mansion. He also has cars like the DeLorean, the Porsche 911 and the PT Cruiser. Paper Paradise, a commercial site, has a free airplane it says is capable of barrel rolls and loops that comes with directions for a rubberband launcher. For younger kids, the printer company Canon has Print Planet, with pinwheels, paper dolls and an entire paper town, with cars to drive in it, while rival Hewlett-Packard has undersea, outer space and dino dioramas.

Our best models so far include the free pop-up galleon from the commercial Heritage Model site; the Asian-influenced folding and unfolding cube toy by Ellen Yi-Luen Do; and Jill Britton’s Polyhedra Earth Map (we did the cubist globe). The kids enjoy creeping out their friends with a dragon that appears to watch you wherever you go, from Grand Illusions, and I’m very proud of my adorable moving woodpecker from Sasatoku. I haven’t yet decided what color paper I’ll use to print my 3D 2005 desk calendar, courtesy of Robert Simm’s Neat Math Page, but over in the kids’ room I hear plans afoot for a miniature movie set with the buildings, spaceships and robots. Guess I better lay in more supplies of heavy paper and ink...

Tips on techniques: The Card Modeling FAQ is the hobby’s bible. At minimum, you’ll need a B&W printer, heavyweight business-card-thickness printer paper, scissors and tape or a glue stick. For more advanced models you’ll want a good color printer, special readers like Adobe Acrobat, an X-Acto knife and a straight edge, a blunt pointy object like a knitting needle to “score” fold lines for sharp creases, and craft glue. Go easy on the Elmer’s; a dab’ll do ya, and hold the pieces together for a minute or two until set. And save the scraps -- they sometimes have important instructions on them. Then clear some shelf space, because your personal toy factory is ready to roll!


  • JavaGami software by Ann and Mike Eisenberg of the University of Colorado has models of sushi and other shapes and lets you custom-design your own.

Check these out:

Polyhedra Pastimes (
Free Paper Toys (
Paper Model WebRing (
3D Paper Model (
Paper Toys (
Paper Paradise (
Heritage Models galleon (
Sasatoku (
Dragon Optical Illusion (
The Toymaker (

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Foreign Language (May 2006)

Yes, you can get by almost anywhere in the world with just English. But learning to speak a foreign language, even if you never get beyond basic pleasantries, can make a visit to another country so much more meaningful. And becoming fluent in a foreign language, or two, is not only a useful skill: it’s also a window onto other worlds. You don’t even have to go abroad to hear many languages, as the Modern Language Association’s map of languages spoken in U.S. proves. Of course, immersion is the best way to develop fluency, but if you’re not ready to move someplace where English isn’t spoken, the next best choice is to listen to native speakers as much as possible, and that’s where the Internet comes in. With a high-speed connection you have access to audio, video and animated lessons on almost any language you can think of, for both children and adults. What’s more, even if you never leave home, the Internet can bring foreign countries to you, through foreign-language news and cultural sites. So grab your passport, I mean your mouse, and go!

Americans are particularly bad when it comes to learning other languages. Only 9 percent of us can speak a second language fluently, compared to half of Europeans, according to The National Virtual Translation Center. And most langauge instruction in the U.S. is confined to Spanish, French and one or two other European languages. The NVTC was formed in 2003 when the government realized that mastery of foreign languages is useful not only in trade and foreign relations but in national security concerns as well. NVTC’s Languages of the World website contains information about hundreds of languages, including their origins and families, writing systems, with links on each one.

Other places to look for foreign language websites include iLoveLanguages, a catalog of more than 2400 links that include online lessons, translating dictionaries, native literature, translation services, software, and language schools. The University of Richmond’s "Global Village" is for anyone interested in communicating with, visiting, or learning about other peoples and cultures in a dozen different languages. Then there’s Polish teacher Magdalena Pospieszna's Language Links, whose wide selection of sites include Esperanto and Latin.

Not surprisingly, given Britain’s proximity to Europe, the BBC’s website is a wonderful resource for interactive foreign language instruction for English speakers. We’ve used their video and audio files and animations for kids for learning French at home, but they also offer Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Gaelic, Spanish, German and Italian instruction for all levels, and “holiday phrases” for vacationers in 37 languages. The BBC World Service news broadcast is also available in many European languages. Britain’s Channel 4 also has a site where you can play animated games at Chez Mimi (French) and Hennings Haus (German).

Some foreign language instruction books and textbooks have interactive websites where you can listen to pronouciation or test yourself with online flashcards that are useful even without the book. McDougal Littell’s ClassZone includes maps, an online workbook, webquests with links that help you complete a task such as planning a vacation abroad, and self-checking quizzes for French, Spanish and German. And the educational publisher Usborne has online pronunciation guides and links to interesting websites for those languages as well as Italian, Russian and Japanese.

The World Wide Web is also helping to preserve languages that are in danger of extinction, including many Native American tongues. For instance, as part of a project about people of the Arctic we found excellent sites with audio pronounciation guides, traditional stories and other features on languages spoken by Inuit and Yupik tribes. Other lesser-known languages are also well-represented. For another project on the Himalayas, I came across complete video lessons on beginning to intermediate Tibetan.

Along with lessons, there are many other ways you can use the Internet to practice and improve foreign language skills. Here are some suggestions by’s French Language website:

  • Incorporate the language into your routine every day by making a word-of-the-day site your homepage.
  • Read newspapers online from the area you’re studying. (Google News offers versions from several different countries; go to the bottom of the page.)
  • Visit sites that stream or archive foreign language radio and television broadcasts or webcasts. (Some channels have kids’ sections with games and cartoon clips.)
  • Listen to music in the language you’re studying on artists’ websites or sample CDs on sites like (In the week before Christmas we learned a whole slew of carols en francais.)
  • Search for foreign-language movies you can rent or borrow from your library (slapstick comedies work well in any language).

So let the Internet broaden your horizons by introducing you to new and different languages. Bonne chance!

Family Online Picks:

Modern Language Association map (


iLoveLanguages (

Global Village (

Magdalena Pospieszna's Language Links (

BBC Languages (

Chez Mimi and Hennings Haus (

McDougal Littell (

Usborne (

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Micronations (Feb 2005)

From Lilliput to Mordor, tiny yet convincingly-detailed countries have been around for centuries. And not all of them are populated by imaginary beings: some, like the Catalan Republic or Malta, are real places inhabited by real people, even though they may not be recognized by other nations. While there are still would-be founding fathers and mothers declaring their backyards or bedrooms to be independent states, today it’s just as common for “micronations” to exist only in cyberspace. Either way, the perks of starting your own micronation are many. Besides getting to call yourself “Lord Dumpling” or “His Excellency, the President of Molossia,” you get to design your own flag, currency, and stamps, and bestow titles and ministries on your friends, as well as use your website to disseminate news to the populace -- and sell souvenirs. With so many land-based and digital micronations staking their claim online, your computer is the perfect vessel for exploring this fascinating realm.

One of the best explanations of what micronations are all about is posted on the user-written reference website Wikipedia. The article has entries on individual micronations with links to their websites, and a list of other portals and informational sites, like (Since this story appeared, it has been added to the Wikipedia entry!) Through the Actual Small Countries website, with links to sites like the CIA World Factbook and Flags of the World, you can find out how to rent the principality of Liechtenstein (or one of its villages) for your next affair. And Footnotes to History lists failed real-world secessionist states and historical oddities going back to Alamut in central Persia, which lasted from 1090 until 1272. (Though the site needs updating, it’s still worthwhile.)

Most micronations are created in fun, and they’re awfully fun to visit. A good example of a bite-sized sovreignty with its own postal and barter system, a well-thought-out constitution and even its own time zone is the Northern Forest Archipelago. The NFA, founded by Lake Placid middle school teacher Jamie Sheffield (otherwise known as King James II), is “primarily a land and animal and plant based nation-state” with outposts throughout the Adirondacks and New England. But its website offers a great lesson in what kinds of structure a country needs to survive, besides having cute photos of two-year-old Crown Prince Ben at the Royal Family’s Summer Palace. Another hobbyist micronation, the Republic of Molossia in Nevada, has as its basic unit of currency the Valora, which look a lot like casino gambling chips and are linked in value to Pillsbury Cookie Dough (3 Valora = one tube of Cookie Dough). Its website features pictures of its railroad, national sport (broomball) and space program.

Some micronations were started when their monarchs were only kids. Robert Madison founded the Kingdom of Talossa in 1979 at the age of 14, when he declared his bedroom in Milwaukee to be independant from the United States. (Talossa is still around, although last year rival factions broke off and formed their own Republic.) Eric Lis of Montreal was only 5 when he created Aerica in 1987. At one point the country, which displays a smiley face on its flag, had more than 500 citizens and “an empire to match the Star Trek Federation of Planets.”

Other land-based micronations break away from their mother country for the publicity. In 1982 the mayor of Key West, Florida announced that the city was seceeding from the U.S. over a Border Patrol blockade of the only road from the mainland. Though the rebels quickly surrendered and applied for foreign aid, the Conch Republic commemorates its brief independence every year with a week-long celebration. Citizenship is open to everyone and you can apply online; remarkably, Conch Republic passports have been accepted in several countries, including the Caribbean and Europe.

A few micronations take the process one step further, going to great lengths to establish their legitimacy. In the 1960s Roy Bates and his family turned an abandoned WWII defense platform in the middle of the English Channel into the Principality of Sealand, conducting a number of bloodless wars ending in court battles or negotiations with invaders and its European neighbors (You’ll want to watch out for micronations that take themselves too seriously, however; they may be the province of separatist groups with grim objectives.)

New micronations (and their websites) are emerging and old ones disappearing all the time, leaving online archeologists to try to make sense of the artifacts left behind. Keep up with the latest developments on the Micronational News Network, featuring headlines from outlets like Antarctica Announcer, the St. Angelsk Times, and the Cyberian Broadcasting Co-op. Yes, there is conflict and strife in the micronational universe, but there is also hope. Events like the Intermicronational Olympic Games, with both real world and online competitions in Frisbee discus, tennis-ball shotput, and virtual checkers, chess and Monopoly, strive to bring unrecognized nations together. Maybe someday silliness will triumph over warfare, and micronations will take the lead to show the rest of the world how to get along.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Children's Book Authors and Illustrators (August 2004)

When I was in school books seemed to just mysteriously appear on library shelves. I thought Dr. Seuss was a brand name, like Dr. Scholl. Nowadays, kids know all about the people who create children’s books, and treasure their favorites. Just like pop stars, authors and illustrators today have their own websites, and sometimes fan sites made in their honor as well. There are lots of places to look for info on your kids’ favorite writers and artists, news on upcoming work, and ways to contact them or get them to visit your school. Now that school’s back in session, you’ll find these sites a great resource for book reports or writer and artist biographies. Some even invite fans to email them – and there’s nothing like getting a message right back from one of your literary stars!

But don’t expect an answer from Jo Rowling; the author of the Harry Potter franchise is too busy working on the final book, as well as her growing family. Still, on Rowling's website there are chatty messages for fans, news clips on Harry-related topics, fun activities and mysteries to solve. It’s a really neat glimpse into the tremendously fertile (and somewhat messy) mind of one of the world’s most popular authors.

Many other author/illustrators spice up their sites with animations, online games, and printable coloring pages. Tomie dePaola (“Strega Nona”), Jan Brett (“The Mitten”), and Dav Pilkey (The Captain Underpants series) are three of my family’s favorites. Others you may have heard of include DB Johnson (“Henry Hikes to Fitchburg,” based on ideas from philosopher Henry David Thoreau) and the team of Vivian Walsh and J.otto Seibold (“Olive the Other Reindeer,” “Penguin Dreams”). For kids who like their fiction spooky, there's the busy website all about author Lemony Snicket (“A Series of Unfortunate Events”). Or “Talk to DP” -- cult hero Daniel Pinkwater, creator of picture books like “The Big Orange Splot” as well as young adult classics like “Lizard Music” – at the P-Zone, and get a personal message back.

One of the best places to look for information on children’s book authors is the site run by Bethany Roberts, herself a writer of kid lit. It not only lists children’s book creator websites, it also has links to articles about for people who want to write for children, story tips for kids, and lists of other children’s book author web portals. Other places to try include Children’s Literature’s “Meet the Authors and Illustrators” page, and the Children’s Book Council site, with links to authors and illustrators published by members of this industry group. Or try the Author Yellow Pages' section on children’s writers.

Finally, be sure to take a trip to Planet Esme, realm of Esme Raji Codell. A former teacher, bookseller and school librarian, she’s the author of “Educating Esme” and “How to Get Your Child to Love Reading,” and in my opinion one of the most insightful writers on kids and books today.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Maps and Geography (May 2004)

Maps give me a thrill. When I look at a map of a place I’ve been, it’s like unfolding a miniature city, and I almost picture myself walking past the monuments or sitting in a favorite sidewalk cafe. Collecting maps of a place I hope to visit is always my first step in planning a trip. And poring over maps of places I’ll never see, like the Roman Empire or Antarctica, makes imagining what it’s like there so much easier.

Of course, looking at a map online pales in comparison to crawling around a full-size hardcopy on the living room carpet (or having one neatly folded in a Ziploc bag in your backpack when your GPS batteries run out). But the sheer number and variety of maps available, plus interactive features including informational links, games, quizzes, and even animated historical maps that show changes over time, make the Internet an indispensable geographical resource for traveling, schoolwork, or just for fun.

Sites like MapQuest, Yahoo! and Rand McNally are the fastest way to find driving directions mileage and estimated travel time between any two points you specify. None of these sites is perfect, however, and the best strategy is to check out two or three and compare suggested routes. You can also try tweaking the results by breaking your trip into smaller sections, using the road you prefer to take as an intermediate endpoint.

What about after you get out of the car? You can often find maps of a town’s business district and major attractions on its tourism website, not to mention maps of bike routes, walking tours and other recreational activities. I like to cut-and-paste maps into Word and create my own personalized “tourist brochure.” For hikers there are free topographical maps, showing elevation and geographical features, at Topozone. Again, any of these maps may be out-of-date or less detailed than you need, but they’re a good start when you’re just deciding where to go.

Kids, parents and teachers who need maps for schoolwork have a world of options to explore. Almost any kind of map you need can be found or custom generated on National Geographic's map section, while teachers can find lesson plans on Xpeditions, their learning website. Teachers also rave about the CIA Factbook, a database covering some 200 countries. Web Geography for Kids is a portal of other good sites, with a useful summary of each. Some examples: How Far Is It?, a site from Indonesia which gives you coordinates and the distance between any two cities (as the crow flies), and Education Place from Houghton, offering free, detailed outline maps. The U.S. Geological Survey has an education section and fact sheets on topics like using a map and compass. The social studies section of Teach the Children Well and GeoGlobe are two teacher-created places with good kid-oriented geography links. And for a bigger “wow” factor, check out some animated maps, like the 10-minute, narrated movie showing the growth of the United States on Animated Atlas.

Online interactive geography quizzes are a great way to learn your way around the globe.’s geography page has its own quizzes, plus a list of other quiz sites – two good ones are National Geographic’s Geospy and LizardPoint.

Of course, no map can rival a satellite photograph for accuracy and detail. From Google Maps you can zoom in on any street from a conventional road map, a satellite image, or a hybid of the two. But if your kids prefer imaginary realms, explore the selection of maps of Narnia, the setting for "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," or find out how to walk from Bags End, Hobbiton to Mordor with Yahoo!-style directions. You never know what you find once you start your quest. Happy hunting!

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Art (July 2004)

You don’t have to visit a museum to see great works of art. Without ever stepping into a classroom, studio or gallery, you can learn how and why artists work the way they do, and even make art of your own. The Internet is a wonderful jumping-off point for families who want to explore what makes art tick – or just enjoy it.

Do your children like to draw on the sidewalk with chalk? Take them to Kurt Wenner’s website to see how a former NASA illustrator uses the most humble medium imaginable to create amazing pictures that seem to leap right out, or sink into, the concrete. No matter what you think about modern art, a lot of contemporary artists have a playful exuberance that kids can really appreciate. The late artist Keith Haring, who got his start scribbling crawling babies and barking dogs on subway posters, is the subject of a website made specifically for his youngest fans. And Chicago stonecarver Walter S. Arnold inspires budding clay sculptors with his site featuring the scary and goofy gargoyles he created for the National Cathedral in Washington. Glassmaker Dale Chihuly is a showman who’s dropped giant glass bubbles into the canals in Venice and strung colorful chandeliers that resemble enormous sea creatures in the courtyards of castles in Britain. On his site, you can see his work and hear him talk about it. Or find links to online images by more than 7,500 other artists, living and dead, whose work is on display at museums worldwide at Artcyclopedia. You can even find original art at prices even kids can afford by clicking on Artomat. Here are listings of dozens of vending machines – converted cigarette machines – in restaurants and other locations that distribute miniature artworks by real starving artists, for prices ranging from $2 to $5.

Museum websites themselves are a great resource for art lovers and students. You can learn about favorite artists or movements or add to your understanding of different cultures. At the Art Museum Network’s website there are links to more than 200 museums, big and small, around the globe, including the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Firstgov for Kids is a government portal to family-friendly sites, including a great page of art museum links, both public and private.

It’s worth searching for other art sites too. Last year we enhanced our study of medieval Asia with sites like, which has a kids’ page that takes you step-by-step through an intricately-detailed painting called “The Buddha’s Challenge.”
Lots of sites offer art lessons, crafts and projects you can try at home. Former middle school art teacher Judy Decker has a site called The Incredible Art Department, with illustrated lesson plans, links to age-appropriate sites, information on art careers and much more. The website has a page of links kids will like about architecture and building design. Or find more kids’ art lesson sites at's kids' drawing page.

Personally, I much prefer making art with atoms instead of bits, as one site puts it. But I have to admit there are a lot of fun sites where families can make art online. You can draw cool mathematical designs with a virtual Spirograph, play around with a gray-tone mosaic at the Museum of Web Art’s kids wing, or try activities like PixelFace and the Collage Machine at the National Gallery of Art’s kids Art Zone. And even though I used to think coloring pages on the computer was silly, I did spend a happy hour filling in the self-portrait of Frida Kahlo at Enchanted Learning, which also lets you pick your own color scheme for great works from the Mona Lisa to American Gothic.

And if you’ve got a picture that’s just crying out for exposure, many sites have virtual “refrigerator doors” on which to display your masterpiece. Try Education Index, Scribbles Kids Art, or just do a search for “refrigerator door,” “kids” and “art.” And start creating!

Thursday, May 18, 2006

History (Sept. 2005)

History was always my worst subject, which makes it all the more surprising that it’s turned out to be one of our favorite homeschooling topics. Not only does it provide a framework for the rest of our studies (we’ve looked at the origins of math and science and learned about bygone cultures through art, music, and folktales) but, much to my amazement, I’ve discovered that history is actually ... interesting. One of the best tools for our trips back in time, of course, is the Internet. A website with games, video and animation beats out a dry old history textbook any day. And hypertext is way more cool than plain footnotes. So come with us as we delve into some of our favorite history websites.

History is more than just memorizing names and dates. It’s finding out about how people lived long ago and about fascinating, if not always exemplary, personalities. We loved exploring A.L. Brims’ darkly funny site on Henry VIII, for instance -- roll your mouse over the portraits of Henry’s six wives to uncover their fates. And many colorful characters from fiction, like pirates and witches, have their roots in historical fact. Pirates! Fact & Legend is full of articles about real-life unsavory brutes such as Blackbeard and Anne Bonney. Talk Like A Pirate takes a decidedly sillier tack, with Junior Pirate and Links pages that will help you bone up for next year’s Talk Like a Pirate Day celebration, which occurs every September 19. Want to know what your options are if they accuse you of being a witch? Take the online quiz and learn about the Salem Witch Trials with University of Missouri law professor Douglas O. Linder’s engrossing site about famous trials. Even more witchy links can be found at A to Z Home's Cool Homeschooling Web Site, a handy source of useful websites for any parent.

When sites have online activities, they make plain facts come alive. At Plimouth Plantation’s website, you can follow two children, a Wampanoag and a girl who arrived on the Mayflower, through the real First Thanksgiving (go to Learning and pick Online Activities). Go to Secrets of Lost Empires, from the PBS series NOVA, to try out engineering discoveries like Gallileo’s experiments on motion and gravity. Or challenge yourself on a journey with Lewis and Clark on National Geographic’s interactive adventure. Finally, the BBC has so many entertaining history pages it’s sometimes hard to find the one you want. Go to History Games for activities like Mummy Maker and Gladiator: Dressed to Kill.

Teachers and hobbyists alike have collected history websites families can use to explore their own areas of interest. Ancient times through the Middle Ages is the focus of the simply-written, content-packed History for Kids by Portland State University history professor Karen Carr. Budding Medievalists can check out Castles on the Web, with links for kids that include Lego castles. NetSerf’s links cover everything from King Arthur to early music, plus historical news, like the five-year-old twins who last month dug up actual Viking treasure in their backyard in Oslo. The oft-cited Mr. Dowling’s Electronic Passport has articles and links on more than 20 topics in world history from Florida geography teacher Mike Dowling. Social Studies for Kids is not as dry as it sounds; former Guide David White’s homepage is organized like a newspaper, with current events, early American history, and “This Week in History” features. There’s also a page with links to history, culture and economics games. Teach the Children Well comes from Cape Cod elementary teacher Elaine M. Doolittle and looks like the seashore. Her Social Studies section is filled with useful links. In contrast, Best of History Websites is all business; their picks emphasis clever use multimedia technology. We’ve only gotten as far as the 1700s in our history studies, and these are only a few of the sites that help parents and kids take a look at the past. But whether we’re looking for a broad overview or one specific time in history, we know how to turn the Web into our personal time machine, and you can do it too.

Crafts - Feb 2006

My kids are usually willing to indulge their mother’s artsy tendencies by trying out a new craft. Sometimes I’ve got a subject (like seamanship or rocketry) that would benefit from a hands-on project to really come to life. Other times I’ll find my supply cabinet overflowing with an interesting-looking material, such as old CDs or those clear plastic egg cartons, and decide to find a clever way to recycle them. Often there’s some object I’d like to recreate – blown glass or a permanent sand castle – but have no idea how to go about it. That’s when I turn to the Internet. But you don’t need a reason to get creative, especially when it’s cold and uninviting outside. Just poke through the recycling box, sit down with the kids and try some of the projects you’ll find on websites like these:

Creative Kids at Home is a whole library of free craft instructions, with categories for older and younger children, summer or holiday crafts and more. Making Friends features camp crafts, scout crafts, sports crafts and even “sixties crafts” (think bell bottoms and tie dye). Although there are somewhat annoying links to products they sell, they have a nice variety of crafts, including reader ideas like a recycled-CD Disco Ball, which are user rated. Another popular site for crafts, Kids Domain, is also a bit commercial for me – you have to click past ads to get to the directions – but pretty complete.

Many “art lesson plans” for teachers involve crafts that can be done at home as well; as a bonus, you often get background info and suggestions for storybooks or reference material to tie-in to the theme being presented. Despite the name, Kinder Art has projects for kids from preschool to high school, ranging from bean mosaics to folk art weathervanes. Some user-submitted instructions don’t come with photos, but in general they’re easy to follow. The Incredible Art Department, which I’ve mentioned before, is another good source of projects of all types (you’ll have to sift through to find crafts like the tissue paper vase).

TV is, surprisingly, another source of craft directions online. The DIYNetwork website includes a whole list of crafts for kids and adults (some of the adult crafts are easily modified for kids). I particularly liked the goodie-filled party-favor poppers and the soft-sculpture dino made by wrapping an old colorful T-shirt around a wire frame. But beware: some so-called “kid crafts” (most of those found on the HGTV network website, for instance) would make nice gifts for children but are too complicated for them to make themselves. You won’t have that problem with two public television programs that are aimed at young Do It Yourselfers: Hands On Crafts for Kids contains nine seasons’ worth of crafts instructions on its website, with themes like habitats of the world, world history and US customs and symbols. And the hit PBS show ZOOM encourages young viewers to “Get artsy, get crafty!” with its own page of “ZOOMdo.”

If you’ve got art supplies lying around and aren’t sure what to do with them, try checking out the manufacturer’s website. Sculpey, STYROFOAM and Crayola (which requires free registration) all offer tips for using their products, as well as craft suggestions and instructions. The Dick Blick art material catalog website also has a section with tips for using materials, and lesson plans you can browse for craft ideas.

Need more inspiration? The portal All Crafts has links to other crafting sites, with a separate section on kids’ crafts. And has a Family Crafts page with articles on craft techniques and materials like mosaics and paper mache, as well as links to directions for individual crafts. Keep in mind that searching for crafts is a lot like searching for recipes: you may have to comb through several versions, picking and choosing what appeals to you, to end up with the final product you’ve got in mind. Adding the search terms “kids” or “students” and “directions” or “materials” can help narrow down your results. To get you started, here’s a real quickie – non-melting snowflakes, an idea I adapted from several sources online. It’s easy to be crafty, when encouragement is as close as your computer screen. Have fun!


6 toothpicks (for little snowflakes) or bamboo skewers (for big flakes)

1 large marshmallow

18 mini marshmallows (little) or 18 or more foam packing “peanuts” (big)


1. Place 3 mini-marshmallows on each toothpick OR thread as many foam peanuts as you desire, in any direction, onto each skewer (making sure they match up so your snowflake will be symmetrical).

2. Insert the toothpicks or skewers evenly into the large marshmallow and you’re done. Use a suction-cup hanger to display it in a window, or make a bunch for a winter mobile.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Online videos (April 2006)

With libraries, rental stores, cable on demand and online movie ordering services, it’s not hard at all to get ahold of videos. But there are still times when having instant access to a clip of the Apollo 11 moon landing or Martin Luther King’s famous speech at the March on Washington is worth a thousand DVDs. That’s when you’ll be glad you’ve got a high-speed Internet connection – and help finding online videos. With the Internet, you can choose when to watch selected episodes of educational TV shows, interviews with favorite authors, or webcasts of talks by important newsmakers. You and the kids can browse through old movie classics, goofy commercials, or creative home-made films starring everything from muffins to Legos. There’s a whole world of video for the searching, and it costs little or nothing to watch.

Quality-wise, online videos aren’t a threat to DVDs or cable – yet. Clarity and reliability can range from acceptable to awful, and most videos play in a tiny window on your computer screen only a few inches wide. But along with watching videos streaming on your computer, many sites let you download and save them to your computer, a CD or DVD, or your iPod. Educators Annette Lamb and Larry Johnson, creators of the website Eduscapes and Eduscapes Seeds, and high school librarian Joyce Kasman Valenza, have useful introductions to online video on their websites, with tips and links.

One resource my family turns to again and again is United Streaming. All New York residents can sign up to use UnitedStreaming’s video archive for free by going to their local public television station’s website. (Elsewhere, many schools provide access to their families, and individual subscriptions are available for about $150 a year). You can search UnitedStreaming’s library by grade level as well as by subject, view individual segments as well as entire videos, and save titles in your own playlist. While many are a little dry, there are exceptions, like the Standard Deviants series (math, foreign language and many other topics) and children’s book adaptations by WestonWoods. Discovery Education recently bought United Streaming, so many of its videos now come from this offshoot of the Discovery Channel.

Other good places to look for educational material include the Library of Congress (click on Webcasts; that page has links to motion pictures), which has an archive of lectures by authors such as Magic Treehouse creator Mary Pope Osborne and the late feminist Betty Friedan, as well as scholars, politicians, and historians. The LOC’s American Memory Motion Picture Collection has examples of early motion pictures and the first animated shorts, as well as historical compilations of Coca-Cola commercials through the years and footage of the 9/11 attacks. LOC also hosts the Moving Images Collection website, with links to science digital videos on the web, among other movie-related sites.

The cable network C-SPAN offers online videos about history along with archives of its coverage of current events. Some 500 episodes of the author-interview show Booknotes, which ran from 1989 to 2004, are also available. Older students and adults may find the Research Channel interesting, with over a thousand videos of lectures on scientific and medical research from universities and research corporations. Topics range from “children who remember past lives” to the Civil War, and there are also interviews with artists, writers, film and computer people. The streaming quality is excellent.

You’ll find a little of everything at the Internet Archive, a non-profit organization founded to preserve all kinds of information in digital format, including moving images. The site houses collections such as the Siggraph Electronic Theatre’s computer animation winners; theatrical features that have entered the public domain, including Little Rascals comedies, Popeye cartoons, and Flash Gordon serials, and the TV shows NetCafe and Democracy Now. There are also more than 16,000 “open source” clips contributed by individuals; these are basically home movies, some historical (footage of the tsunami and Hurricane Wilma), some useful (I actually found this site because of a video demonstration of a craft technique) and some adolescent spoofs which are probably not suitable for younger audiences.

To find videos on websites in general, Yahoo! is the search engine to use. Just click on the “Video” button on the top of its home page (it automatically filters out obvious mature content.) Yahooligans!, the kids’ site, also works well. My usual favorite, on the other hand, has decided to go in a different direction. Google Video (click “More” from its home page to find the link) is “the world's first open online video marketplace.” Along with some free content such as Superbowl commercials and a few PBS episodes of shows like NOVA, there’s an “ever-growing collection” of TV shows, movies, music videos, documentaries, and personal productions that cost a dollar or two and require you to set up a Google account. The selection includes episodes of Star Trek: Voyager, I Love Lucy, Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons.

But you don’t have to pay to find great entertainment. Many small studios, budding filmmakers and just plain amateurs have online videos the whole family can enjoy. The Web-based fan series STAR TREK: NEW VOYAGES, recently featured in the local media, is just one example. There’s also Muffin Films, a very cute site by UCLA film student Amy Winfrey, with a dozen short animations about a delicious baked good, and Spite Your Face (don’t mind the name), the award-winning studio that produces animated videos for the Lego website. (I have to mention Brickfilms, the headquarters for fan-made Lego movies, even though, again, some are not suitable for younger kids.) With so much to choose from, online videos are a family resource that’s worth the trouble.

(c) 2006 Kathy Ceceri
May not be published in any form without permission

Diet Coke and Mentos

A fellow homeschooling parent sent an email today about the proliferation of people doing the Diet Coke and Mentos experiment and posting the video on the web. I first saw this feat on Steve Spangler's blog.

Steve Spangler does science experiments on TV and has a catalog of cool and inexpensive science equipment, including the famous dipping bird. Yesterday my oldest son brought his giant solar bag to Outdoor Games Day, where it captured everyone's attention. I'm sorry I don't have a photo to show you, but if we get another I'll bring my camera next time (the bag did not survive).

I'm going to try making our own out of plastic garbage bags. I'll let you know how it works...

Welcome to the Family Online blog!

Finally, I've started the process of putting all my old columns of family-friendly websites on the web, where you can check out the links with just a click. If you find a link that is outdated, or have one to add, please post a comment!

Also, I'll be posting links of interest to families I've gathered from researching other articles or doing homeschool projects with my kids. Again, suggestions for similar websites are welcome.

And if you have questions about particular topics, send 'em along. I'll try my best to help, and they may spark an idea for a future column.