Very Little People: Borrowers, Lilliputians, and Tom Thumb

 

IMAGINARY LITTLE PEOPLE

In William Joyce’s George Shrinks (HarperCollins, 1987), George wakes up to find that he’s just three inches tall – but he creatively copes, managing to make his bed, brush his teeth, and do the dishes, as well as dealing with the now-gigantic family cat and his even more enormous baby brother. (He also takes a great ride in a toy airplane.) For ages 3-7.
  Horton the Elephant, the kind and dependable hero of Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who! (Random House Books for Young Readers, 1954) hears a nearly inaudible cry for help and rescues a small speck of dust from blowing into a pool. The speck turns out to contain an entire population of infinitesimal people, and Horton spends the rest of the book protecting them from disbelieving acquaintances – because, after all, “a person’s a person, no matter how small.” There’s no better role model than Horton. For ages 4-8.
  Florence Sakade’s Little One-Inch and Other Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories (Tuttle Publishing, 2008) is an illustrated collection of ten different traditional tales, among the “The Spider Weaver,” “The Crab and the Monkey,” and “The Rabbit Who Crossed the Sea.” “Little One-Inch” is the story of a thumb-sized baby boy who grows up to be a tiny samurai warrior, and then sets off to seek his fortune, armed with a needle, and using a soup bowl as a boat, with chopsticks for oars. For ages 4 and up.
  Tom Thumb by Richard Jesse Watson (Sandpiper, 1993) is an adaptation of the traditional English tale in which a woman wishes desperately for a baby – even one “no bigger than my husband’s thumb.” Her wish is granted and soon the tiniest of baby boys is born. Named Tom Thumb by the faeries, he grows up to have many adventures, and eventually is knighted by King Arthur.  Watson’s illustrations are exquisite paintings filled with natural details: lovingly depicted birds, animals, and plants, Tom’s acorn cradle, and Tom’s field-mouse steed. For ages 4-9.
From the Core Knowledge Foundation, Tom Thumb Stories From Around the World is a series of six lessons on multicultural Tom Thumb tales targeted at early-elementary students.
  My favorite of the many picture-book versions of Hans Christian Andersen’s Thumbelina is Amy Ehrlich’s adaptation, with lovely Victorian-style illustrations by Susan Jeffers (Dutton Juvenile Books, 2005).  Like all Andersen tales, Thumbelina is somewhat eerie. The tiny girl who sleeps in a walnut-shell bed under a flower-petal coverlet is first kidnapped by a frightening toad and marooned on a lily pad, and then (almost) forcibly married to a blind mole, before she escapes to find her perfect home with the king of the fairies. For ages 4 and up.
  For the complete works of Hans Christian Andersen online, see Hans Christian Andersen: Fairy Tales and Stories.
Sur la Lune Fairytales’ Thumbelina has an annotated online text, a gallery of illustrations, a list of related multicultural fairy tales about tiny people, modern interpretations of the story, and a bibliography.
  Randall Jarrell’s translation of Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs (Square Fish, 1987) is a stunningly gorgeous version of the story, with illustrations by Nancy Ekholm Burkert. Also see Sur la Lune Fairytales’ Snow White for an annotated text, historical background information, an associated book list, and the names of Disney’s seven dwarfs.
  Julia Roberts as Evil Queen? For information about the Snow-White-based 2012 movie Mirror Mirror, see the Internet Movie Database.
  John Peterson’s The Littles (Scholastic, 2011) is the first of a series of short chapter books about a tiny family (with mouse-like tails) who lives in the walls of the Bigg family house – and who, in exchange for food and supplies, keep the Bigg house is running order. Then the Biggs go on vacation, leaving the house in the hands of the slovenly Newcombs. What follows is an infestation of mice and a cat.  Many sequels. For ages 6-9.
  In Florence Parry Heide’s The Shrinking of Treehorn (Holiday House, 1992), Treehorn is clearly shrinking, but no one around him seems to notice or care. (“Nobody shrinks,” said Treehorn’s father.) Finally, in the nick of time, Treehorn manages to solve the problem on his own – but even that doesn’t get much of a response. (“That’s nice,” said Treehorn’s mother.) Funny and frustrating, with terrific deadpan illustrations by Edward Gorey. For ages 6 and up.
  In Roald Dahl’s The Minpins (Puffin, 2009), Little Billy – despite awful warnings from his mother – goes into the Forest of Sin where, living in the tops of the trees, he discovers the Minpins, an entire village of miniature people who scamper around in the branches wearing little green boots equipped with suction cups. They are terrified by a monster, the Red-Hot Smoke-Belching Gruncher, and when Billy manages to dispatch it, he ends up with a liberating reward (magical nightly rides on the back of a swan). For ages 5-9.
  The Minnipins of Carol Kendall’s The Gammage Cup (Sandpiper, 2000) are little people – they’re also known as the “Small Ones” – who live in twelve villages scattered along the Watercress River in the Land Between the Mountains. The villages are competing for possession of the Gammage Cup, and the village of Slipper-on-the-Water, ruled by Ltd. and the other elite Periods – all named from abbreviations on a mysterious paper brought by an ancestor from the outside world – is determined to win the prize. The sticking point is five non-conformist citizens – the historian Walter the Earl, the poet Gummy, the artist Curley Green, the curmudgeonly accountant Mingy, and the scatty, but sweet-natured Muggles. Cast out by the prize-obsessed town, the five discover a terrible danger threatening all Minnipins and become heroes. For ages 8-12.
  The Little Grey Men by BB (a.k.a. Denys Watkins-Pitchford) (HarperCollins, 2004) is the story of the last four gnomes in Britain – Baldmoney, Sneezewort, Dodder, and Cloudberry – who live in a little house under the roots of an old oak tree by the banks of Folly Brook. At the beginning of the book, Cloudberry is missing, and his brothers set off in their little boat – the Dragonfly – to find him. The journey is filled with adventure: wonderful encounters with the birds and animals of Crow Wood; scary encounters with the gamekeeper, Giant Grum, and his dog, Jet; an inadvertently helpful little boy; and a catastrophic storm. The book was originally published in Great Britain in 1942, and is now – yet again – out of print, though can (and should) be obtained through used-book stores and libraries. For ages 8-12.
  Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (Harcourt Children’s Books, 1953), set in the late 19th century, is the story of Pod, Homily, and young Arriety Clock, tiny people who live beneath the floor of an old house in England and survive by “borrowing” matchboxes, buttons, safety pins, and potatoes from the oblivious “human beans.” Then Arrietty, in the teeth of Borrower tradition, befriends a human Boy, with whose help borrowing gets out of hand – which leads to near-disaster. There are four sequels. For ages 9-12.
  Movie versions include Peter Hewitt’s 1997 The Borrowers – a Home-Alone-like production involving hordes of Borrowers and an evil real estate developer; and Hayao Miyazaki’s 2012 anime-style The Secret World of Arrietty, which preserves more of the flavor of the books.
For a short Reader’s Theater script based on The Borrowers, see “The Borrower and the Boy” by Aaron Shepard.
  In Evelyn Sibley Lampman’s The City Under the Back Steps (Doubleday, 1960), cousins Jill and Craig – who have been stepping on ants – are magically shrunk to the size of ants and imprisoned by the ant colony living under the back steps. There they become integrated into the world of ants: tunneling, gathering food, and eventually forming friendships. Jill endears herself to the ants who work in the colony’s nursery; Craig, armed with a pocketknife, defeats a marauding antlion; and both aid the colony during an attack by hostile red ants. It’s a delightful and adventure-packed book, and a terrific way to learn a lot about ants. That said, it’s out of print – check your local library – but there’s an excellent version on audio CD available from Chinaberry.
  In Lynne Reid Banks’s The Indian in the Cupboard (Yearling, 2010), Omri gets a battered cupboard for his birthday – which, when used with a magical key, proves capable of bringing small toys to life. A plastic Indian figure emerges as a miniature human being – a tiny Iroquois warrior named Little Bear. Omri and his friend Patrick, however, soon discover that the cupboard is not a child’s game: the people that emerge from it are real human beings with feelings and lives. There are four sequels: The Return of the Indian, The Secret of the Indian, The Mystery of the Cupboard, and The Key to the Indian. For ages 9-12.
  Scholastic’s The Indian in the Cupboard Discussion Guide has questions to accompany the book, categorized under “Comprehension and Recall,” “Higher-Level Thinking Skills,” “Literary Elements,” and “Personal Response.”
Targeted at fourth-graders, The Indian in the Cupboard is a multifaceted lesson plan in which kids create a puppet version of the story, research the Iroquois and their part in the French and Indian War, make a poster advertisement for selling the cupboard and key, and assemble a list of books in which toys come alive.
Indian in the Cupboard Project Ideas has a long list, among them building and decorating a cardboard cupboard, writing an  story about a toy coming to life, and making Indian and cowboy costumes and putting on a play.
  In Elizabeth Winthrop’s The Castle in the Attic (Perfection Learning, 2001), William’s beloved nanny, Mrs. Phillips, is returning to England. As a parting gift she gives him the toy castle that had been in her family for generations, together with its little lead inhabitant, the Silver Knight. When William touches the knight, it comes alive in his hand. His name is Sir Simon; he has been under the spell of an evil wizard; and he has a magical amulet that – with the proper magic word – makes things small. Soon Mrs. Phillips and William are both caught up in the magic, and – reduced to tiny size – participate in the quest to free Sir Simon’s country from the cruel rule of the wizard Alastor. There’s a sequel, The Battle for the Castle. For ages 9-12.
Carol Hurst’s Children’s Literature Site has a book summary, discussion questions, and activities to accompany The Castle in the Attic.
  In Edward Eager’s Knight’s Castle (Harcourt Young Classics, 1999), Roger and Ann are sent to Baltimore to stay with their cousins Eliza and Jack while their father is in the hospital. Roger brings with him his collection of 256 toy soldiers – among them the mysterious (and magical) Old One, who can (if you earn them) grant wishes. With the help of the Old One, the children become small-sized and enter into the storybook world of the playroom toy castle, where they considerably improve on the ending of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. For ages 9-12.
  The Twelves of Pauline Clarke’s Return of the Twelves (Yearling, 1962) are a troop of old wooden soldiers, discovered in the attic of his family’s farmhouse in Yorkshire by eight-year-old Max – and who, amazingly, come alive when Max beats on a drum. The soldiers, it turns out, once belonged to the Bronte children, and all have names, histories, and personalities. When a rich American collector offers an enormous reward for the soldiers, the Twelves set off on a dangerous cross-country trek to their original home at Haworth Manor – and Max, who has been adopted by the troop as a “Genii” or protector, struggles to see that they get there safely. Not only is it a terrific story, but readers, willy-nilly, learn a lot about the Napoleonic wars, the Bronte family, and the words to the song “The Brave Old Duke of York.” For ages 9-12. It’s out of print, but available at libraries and through used-book sellers. (Many copies, for example, are available at Alibris at http://www.alibris.com, starting at 99 cents.)
  There are several adaptations of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels for younger readers – among them Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver by Martin Jenkins (Candlewick Press, 2010), an excellent illustrated 144-page re-telling of the classic tale for ages 9-14.
  The 1996 film version of Gulliver’s Travels is available on DVD (2008) with a superb cast, including Ted Danson as Gulliver and Peter O’Toole as the King of the Lilliputians. About $8 from http://www.amazon.com.
From Discovery Education, Gulliver’s Travels is a (free) lesson plan targeted at high-school-level students.
  Ten-year-old Maria, the heroine of T.H. White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose (NYR Children’s Collection, 2004) is the orphaned mistress of Malplaquet, a vast crumbling palace with 365 windows (all broken but six), where she lives under the thumbs of her guardian, the nasty local vicar Mr. Hater, and her venomous governess, Miss Brown. Then, on an overgrown island in the estate lake, Maria encounters a population of tiny people – descendants of the Lilliputians captured and brought to England by the sea captain who rescued Gulliver. When Mr. Hater and Miss Brown discover the people and attempt to exploit them for their own ends, Maria and her friend, the dotty neighboring Professor, must manage to defeat them. A witty and wonderful read, with plenty of fuel for discussion, for ages 9 and up.
  In Steve Augarde’s The Various (Yearling, 2005), the first of the Touchstone trilogy, 11-year-old Midge comes to visit her eccentric uncle Brian’s farm and discovers – in the bramble-surrounded neighboring wood – five tribes of tiny people called “the Various,” each with cultures and habitats of their own. Sequels are Celandine and Winter Wood. For ages 9 and up.
  In Selma Lagerlof’s classics The Wonderful Adventures of Nils and The Further Adventures of Nils Holgersson (Penfield Press, 2000), originally published in 1906, young Nils – after annoying an elf – is reduced to elf size and then, riding on the back of a wild goose, travels the country of Sweden. Originally commissioned to teach geography to Swedish children, Nils’s adventures cover a lot of historical, cultural, and geographical territory – as well as conveying surprisingly modern insights on the importance of wilderness preservation and environmental stewardship. For ages 9 and up.
  In Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men (HarperCollins, 2004), feisty nine-year-old witch-to-be Tiffany Aching’s brother has been nabbed by the fairies, so off she goes to get him back, armed with an iron frying pan. As it turns out, she also has to save the world from monsters; and for help, she has the backing of the Nac Mac Feegle or Wee Free Men, a band of obstreperous, six-inch-tall, bright-blue Scottish pictsies (not pixies). Hilarious and delightful, for ages 10 and up. There’s a sequel: A Hat Full of Sky.
  Toby Alone by Timothée de Fombelle (Candlewick Press, 2009) features a world of extremely small – no more than two millimeters tall – people who live in a vast oak known simply as the Tree. The tree is in political and social turmoil: thirteen-year-old Toby’s scientist parents have been captured and imprisoned, and he is alone and on the run. The root of the problem is politician/industrialist Joe Mitch, who is bent on exploiting the sap of the Tree for business purposes – a project that will inevitably kill it. Despite its minuscule characters, the book has more in common with 1984 than The Borrowers. This is a complex and sometimes violent story about the uses and abuses of power, and the consequences of environmental destruction. A thought-provoking read for ages 12 and up. The sequel – Toby Alone ends with a cliffhanger – is Toby and the Secrets of the Tree.

REAL-LIFE LITTLE PEOPLE

  In Lisa Graff’s The Thing About Georgie (HarperCollins, 2008), Georgie’s thing is height. He’s a little person – a dwarf – and, at nine years old, can’t expect to grow much more than his present height of three and a half feet. Each chapter begins with a hand-printed account of what life is like as a dwarf, with a helpful interactive component: try stretching your right arm over your head to touch your left ear, for example, (Georgie can’t); or do some measuring to see if you could reach the light switch or the bathroom faucet if you were only 42 inches tall. Along with his height, Georgie also has to cope with all the problems that come with being a fourth-grade boy: best friend trouble, mean classmate Jeanie, and the fact that his mother is expecting a new (non-dwarf) baby. Touching, funny, and informative. For ages 8-12.
  George Sullivan’s Tom Thumb: The Remarkable True Story of a Man in Miniature is a 200-page biography of Charles Stratton – dubbed “General Tom Thumb” by P.T. Barnum – who, as an adult, was just under three feet tall. The book is illustrated with period photographs and prints. For ages 10 and up.
  Sullivan’s book touches on the question of the exploitation of the different – though in Charles/Tom’s case, small size seems to have been an advantage, leading to fame and (since Stratton was good with money) fortune. (Late in life, when P.T. Barnum was strapped for cash, Stratton bailed him out.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Nice Mice and Awesome Rats

 

Beatrix Potter wrote about mice. A mouse – well, a Dormouse – is an unconscious guest at the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; and Reepicheep, a touchy but gallant mouse, is a favorite in C.S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian and Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

In Kenneth Grahame’s ever-enchanting The Wind in the Willows, a main character is Ratty, a Water Rat – well, a vole – who loves the River and insists that there’s nothing – nothing – better than messing about in boats.

In Roald Dahl’s The Witches, the narrator is captured by witches, fed a potion called “Formula 86 Delayed-Action Mouse Maker,” and turned – permanently in the book, non-permanently in the movie – into a mouse.

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Wizards and Magicians

 

Everyone (well, almost) loves Harry Potter – but Harry and friends are not the only wizards. There’s also Gandalf, of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings; Schmendrick, the inept magician of Peter S. Beagle’s wonderful The Last Unicorn; Ged of Ursula LeGuin’s Wizard of Earthsea; Dallben of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain; and Merlin of the King Arthur tales. And many more.

See below for wizard stories, magic tricks, the science of magic, and all about master magician Harry Houdini.

Annette LeBlanc Cate’s The Magic Rabbit (Candlewick, 2007) is the picture-book story of the Amazing Ray, a magician, and his best friend, Bunny, who – at the word “Abracadabra!” – leaps from Ray’s top hat in a shower of glittering stars. When the two are separated, after a disastrous collision with a juggler and his dog, popcorn and a trail of golden stars help Bunny find his way home. Simple, but charming, for ages 3-6.
In Chris Van Allsburg’s picture book The Garden of Abdul Gasazi (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 1979), Alan has been put in charge of Miss Hester’s badly behaved dog, Fritz, who – ignoring the “ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY NO DOGS ALLOWED” sign – dashes into the eerie topiary garden of the dog-hating retired magician Abdul Gasazi (and is just possibly turned into a duck). For ages 5-10.
For an accompanying lesson plan, see the Teacher’s Guide to The Garden of Abdul Gasazi.
In Freddy the Magician (Overlook, 2011), in Walter R. Brooks’s wonderful Freddy the Pig series, the resourceful and hilarious Freddy – with the support of his animal friends at the Bean family farm – sets out to confound the swindling prestidigitator Senor Zingo by embarking on a career in magic. For ages 5-9. The Freddy the Pig website has more information on Freddy and friends.
The Boy, the hero of Susan Cooper’s The Magician’s Boy (Aladdin, 2006) is the unhappy employee of a magician who refuses to let him learn magic. Instead he polishes the magician’s wand, tends his garden, feeds his rabbits, and operates the puppets for his performances of the puppet play “Saint George and the Dragon.” When the Saint George puppet is lost, the magician sends the Boy to the fairy-tale Land of Story to find it – and after dealing with dangers, difficulties, Red Riding Hood’s wolf, and a dragon, he ultimately wins his heart’s desire. A chapter book for ages 7-11.
L. Frank Baum’s classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (available in dozens of editions) was originally published in 1900, featuring – along with Dorothy and companions, an awful Wicked Witch, and some creepy Winged Monkeys – a totally bogus, but endearing, Wizard, who reached Oz by accident (from Omaha) in a hot-air balloon. There are fourteen books by Baum in the original series, though the Oz opus now numbers in the dozens, continued by Ruth Plumly Thompson, John R. Neill, and others.
imgres For Oz enthusiasts, also see The Annotated Wizard of Oz (W.W. Norton & Company, 2000), edited by Michael Patrick Hearn, which includes a detailed history of the book and its author, hundreds of notes and explanations, and period photographs and illustrations.
Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone (Margaret K. McElderry, 2007), the first of a five-book series, is the story of Simon, Jane, and Barney Drew who, on a summer vacation at an old house in Cornwall, discover an ancient map. The map leads to a treasure associated with Arthurian legend, a key factor in the ancient battle between good and evil – and the children, with the help of their mysterious mentor Professor Merriman Lyon, must secure it before it’s nabbed by the sinister Mr. Withers and his sister. (By the end of the story, the kids also discover who Professor Lyon really is.) For ages 9-12. Subsequent titles in the series are Greenwitch, The Dark Is Rising, The Grey King, and Silver on the Tree.
T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone (Philomel, 1993) is the stand-alone first section of White’s longer re-telling of the Arthurian legend, The Once and Future King. Appropriate for ages 10 and up, The Sword in the Stone is far deeper and more complex – and wittier – than the boiled-down Disney movie version. This is story of the boy Arthur – known as the Wart “because it more or less rhymed with Art, which was short for his real name” – and his most unusual education by Merlin, with the help of hawks, owls, fish, ants, wild geese, and Robin Wood (yes, Wood) and his Merry Men. It ends as Wart pulls the sword from the stone and is revealed as King Arthur. The story continues in The Once and Future King with “The Queen of Air and Darkness,” “The Ill-Made Knight,” and “The Candle in the Wind,” generally recommended for ages 14 and up.
In Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant (Candlewick, 2011), ten-year-old orphan Peter Augustus Duchene visits a fortune-teller and learns that his long-lost sister Adele is still alive and that an elephant will lead him to her. That very evening the elephant arrives, crashing through the roof of the town opera house, inadvertently conjured up by a magician. It’s a somewhat dark tale, in which a collection of eccentric characters – among them a beggar, a soldier with a wooden foot, a crippled noblewoman (the elephant fell on her), and a carver of gargoyles – deal with issues of truth, hope, compassion, and ultimately, love. For ages 10-13.
The Magician’s Toolkit has “Six Magical Activities” to accompany The Magician’s Elephant, with printable materials.
Prospero, Shakespeare’s famous magician, rules the enchanted island on which the action takes place in The Tempest. If your kids are too young for the original play, see Lois Burdett’s The Tempest (Firefly Books, 1999) in the Shakespeare Can Be Fun series for ages 5-9. These books, illustrated with terrific children’s drawings, convey Shakespeare’s plots through a kid-friendly rhyming text. It’s not the Bard’s language, but readers will get the general idea.
Marcia Williams’s Tales from Shakespeare (Candlewick, 2004) for ages 6-10 has whimsically illustrated comic-strip versions of seven plays, among them The Tempest.
For ages 9-13, Tina Packer – Shakespearean expert and director of the Shakespeare & Company theatre group – provides prose versions of ten of the best-known plays, among them The Tempest, in Tales from Shakespeare (Scholastic, 2004). The book is beautifully designed – each play is introduced with a full-page painting – and the dialogue preserves some elements of Shakespearean language.
Charles and Mary Lamb’s classic Ten Tales from Shakespeare (Dover Publications, 2003) for ages 9-12 includes a prose re-telling of The Tempest.

TRICKS OF THE TRADE

Ron Burgess’s Kids Make Magic! (Williamson Publishing, 2003), subtitled “The Complete Guide to Becoming an Amazing Magician,” includes instructions for performing 35 different tricks (plus instructions for making your own magician’s top hat).  Recommended for ages 9-12. (Put on a show!)
Scientific Explorer’s Magic Science for Wizard’s Only kit includes all the materials for 11 different “magical activities,” variously involving colored smoke, color-changing potions, and slime. (About $16 from http://www.amazon.com.)
The Instructables website has illustrated instructions for making a cardboard magician-style top hat.
Make Wizard Crafts has instructions for making a pointed wizard-type hat and magic wand.
Seriously into magic? The Society of Young Magicians – the youth branch of the Society of American Magicians – publishes a monthly online magazine, offers email mentoring, and sponsors magic camps for aspiring magicians ages 7-17. An annual membership costs $20.

THE SCIENCE OF MAGIC

Jim Wiese’s Magic Science (John Wiley & Sons, 1998) is subtitled “50 Jaw-Dropping, Mind-Boggling, Head-Scratching Activities for Kids.” The activities are categorized under Matter, Reactions, Water, Air, Force and Energy, and Electricity and Magnetism, and each comes with clear illustrated instructions, a scientific explanation, and hints for performing before an audience. For example, kids can make a density tower and a magic seesaw, cause coins to disappear, and “magically” turn solutions different colors.
  Vicki Cobb’s Magic…Naturally!(Trophy Press, 1993) is out of print, but can still be tracked down (and it’s worth it) through libraries and used-book suppliers. The book is divided into five sections – “Mechanical Wizardry,” “Fluid Fascinations,” “Energy Enchantments,” “Chemical Conjuring,” and “Perceptual Puzzlements.”In each section, Cobb gives instructions for five different “tricks,” along with a scientific explanation of why each works. Kids learn about inertia, buoyancy, surface tension, electrostatics, chemical reactions, and more through such magical feats as “Intelligent Eggs,” “The Writhing Snake,” “The Blue Flashback,” and “The Possessed Pendulum.”  For ages 9-12.
Roger Highfield’s The Science of Harry Potter: How Magic Really Works (Penguin, 2002) discusses the science, history, and mythology behind the Harry Potter books. (Does the Sorting Hat operate on brain waves? Was John Dee, conjurer to Queen Elizabeth I, the inspiration for Albus Dumbledore? Is the magical entrance to Platform 9 ¾ a wormhole?) Fascinating and fun reading for older teenagers and adults.
Also for older teenagers and adults is Jim Steinmeyer’s Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear (Da Capo Press, 2004). The book is a fascinating history of stage magic from the mid-19th century to the 1920s, with a spectacular cast of characters. The title refers to a famous performance in 1918 when Harry Houdini made Jennie, an elephant, vanish from a circus wagon on the stage of the New York Hippodrome. For teenagers and adults.
Sleights of Mind by Stephen L. Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde (Henry Holt and Company, 2010) is subtitled “What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions.” The authors explain how magicians exploit the normal workings of our brains to fool us, and how our brain function can similarly play us false in daily life – via visual, cognitive, multisensory, and memory illusions, false expectations and assumptions, illusory correlations and superstitions, and more. Forewarned is forearmed, sort of. For older teenagers and adults.
From the California Science Center, Magic: The Science of Illusion has a brief history of magic, online magical illusions, activities, and resource lists.

NATIONAL MAGIC DAY is March 24 – that is, Harry Houdini’s birthday.

David A. Adler’s A Picture Book of Harry Houdini (Holiday House, 2010) – one of Adler’s extensive Picture Book Biography series – is a simple 32-page biography for ages 5-8, with rich color illustrations.
Kathleen Krull’s Houdini: World’s Greatest Mystery Man and Escape King (Walker & Company, 2007) is a dramatic picture-book biography for ages 6-10 that gives a sense of Houdini’s showmanship. (“Welcome! Enter! Prepare to be dazzled!” the book begins.) Biographical information is interspersed with framed descriptions of Houdini’s most famous tricks.
Sid Fleischman’s Escape! The Story of the Great Houdini (Greenwillow, 2006), a photo-illustrated biography for ages 9-14, tells how young Ehrich Weiss, a poor Jewish boy from Budapest, Hungary, managed to transform himself into one of the greatest magicians of all time, capable of making elephants disappear and escaping from high-security lock-ups at Scotland Yard. A fascinating addendum describes Fleishman’s own visits with Madame Houdini.
Brian Selznick’s The Houdini Box (Atheneum, 2008), a fiction book for ages 7-11, pairs the story of Houdini with that of ten-year-old Victor, who yearns to be a magician. After a chance encounter with Houdini, Victor visits his house – only to learn that the great man has just died. He has, however, left Victor a mysterious box – which just may hold the secret to Houdini’s famous escapes.
I, Houdini (Yearling, 2003) by Lynne Reid Banks is the tale of Houdini’s most unusual namesake: a brilliant hamster escape artist who – leaving chaos in his wake – eventually pulls off the ultimate escape and sets out to explore the great outdoors. A fun and funny read for ages 8-11.
Laurie Carlson’s Harry Houdini for Kids (Chicago Review Press, 2009) for ages 9 and up is an informational activity book on the life and times of the world’s most famous magician and escape artist, illustrated with wonderful period prints and photographs. The accompanying “21 Magic Tricks and Illusions” include learning to tie a magic knot, tackling the Magic Key trick, building a box kite, cracking a secret code, writing an invisible message, and whipping up a batch of ectoplasm. A helpful resource list includes supplementary reading suggestions and related web sites to explore.
From PBS’s American Experience series, Houdini has a film transcript, video clips, a gallery of Houdini posters, a timeline of Houdini’s life, games and activities, a resource list, and a teacher’s guide with discussion questions.
The Library of Congress American Memory project has a Houdini biography linked to historical images from the Library’s collection.
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BAA! Sheep, Yarn, Mobius Strips, and DNA

 

There are lots of educational possibilities in yarn. (Yes, yarn!) Knitting is a marvelous activity for kids, touted by 18th-century educator Johann Pestalozzi for teaching math skills, routinely featured in the Waldorf school curriculum, and today popping up in public- and private-school classrooms, and countless homeschool living rooms.

See below for knitting how-tos, knitting stories, knitting with math and science, instructions for making a pair of furry hobbit slippers, and some great books about sheep.

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