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.