They Might Be Giants

WHAT: TMBG at the USA Science & Engineering Festival
WHEN: Saturday, April 16, 2016, 1pm-1:50pm
WHERE: Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Washington, DC

Clockwise from left, Joyce Hesselberth, John Flansburgh, Dave Plunkert, and John Linnell

Clockwise from left, Joyce Hesselberth, John Flansburgh, Dave Plunkert, and John Linnell

We've been TMBG fans for a long time, since before kids (Do you measure time as BK and AK too?). After kids, we still listened. Their albums were, and are, a constant in our house. We decided to go see them in concert last night, at Rams Head Live. The show was for adults only, but because TMBG has so many great songs for kids, and even a few albums for kids, I thought I would mention their upcoming concert for kids at the USA Science Festival in DC. Details about the show are here, and of course there is a lot more to see at the festival, so check it out!

After the show, we stepped backstage to chat with John Flansburgh and John Linnell. Full disclosure, TMBG is also a client of our studio. One of our latest projects was a stop-motion animation for "I  Am Alone." 

I love seeing how this band has evolved over the years. One thing is for sure—with three new albums out in the last fifteen months, they are still going strong.

Thanks, Friends!

A big thank you to everyone who came out to visit me at aMuse Toys! Spending the morning reading my book and making art was a perfect way to launch my new book. Though I admit I was a tiny bit nervous that it would be hard for everyone to brave the snow.

Turns out I had nothing to fear. Lots of new friends showed up to read with me.

And then we made some art! Don't worry, this kid isn't as sad as he seems. But seriously, look at that amazing collage.

I'm hoping to visit more schools, museums, and stores soon, so if you didn't get a chance, there's more to come. Of course, you can also order Shape Shift online.

Book Signing and Collage Activity at aMuse Toys

WHAT: Book reading, signing, and collage activity
WHERE: aMuse Toys at Quarry Lake
WHEN: January 24, 2016
HOW MUCH: FREE, but registration is required.

My new book Shape Shift officially launches on this month, published by Henry Holt. If I were any more excited about this one, I would probably explode. This is the first book I both wrote and illustrated, so it's extra special for me.

And, to celebrate, aMuse Toys at Quarry Lake is hosting a book signing and activity. My book is an introduction to shapes, for kids ages 2-6, but it also encourages kids to combine shapes creatively to make their own beautiful art.


Come by and make a collage with me, or just say hi. I hope to see you there!

Springerle Cookies

I've been thinking a lot about family and tradition. You know, tis the season and yadda yadda yadda. My daughter had to bring a family recipe to class to share. I think that's what started me down this path. She brought a German potato salad recipe that my family has always made. Then the project shifted, and she had to bring in the actual dish for a class feast. Can you believe that potato salad is not that popular of a dish to share in high school? Me neither. Apparently the people who brought in cookies were more well received. Also, a big bowl of potato salad is hard to store in your locker. Lesson learned.

But it got me thinking about more family recipes. It really only takes a generation and bam, there's a new tradition. My family is largely German and English, but came to this country so long ago that old country traditions have meandered a bit. Springerle cookies are German in heritage, but I don't know where this recipe came from. All I know is it's the only one that counts. It has my mom's notes on the side, so it's the real deal. To be perfectly honest, we called them "punishment cookies" which does not exactly sound like a ringing endorsement. They are supposed to sit in a tin for about a month with an orange or apple to soften a bit. However, there was always something slightly addictive about these, so they were gobbled up way before then, rock hard or not. Hence the nickname. They are also anise-flavored, and I know that's a love-it or hate-it flavor for a lot of people. So before I completely talk you out of it, let's get to the recipe.


Translation for the note on the side: use 1 pound confectioners sugar.

I asked my dad to send me the springerle rolling pin. He agreed, but only if I would send him cookies in exchange, every year, forever. Seems like a fair trade to me. I mean, I probably could buy a rolling pin on ebay, but it's not the same if it's not *this* rolling pin, right? You can't just buy traditions.


So now we wait. Or not. They smell so good, maybe just one...

Daytrip to DC

I don't know why I don't take advantage of Washington DC more often, but the annoyance of the traffic and parking is a big part of the reason, so my plan on this trip was to dodge all of it, and take the MARC train and Metro all the way. It's so easy. The MARC train leaves from Penn Station. $7 per person gets you all the way to DC, efficiently and even fairly comfortably. Buy roundtrip tickets at the ticket counter and you can head home anytime. Trains run at least hourly throughout the day, but check the weekday or weekend schedule.

The end of the line is Union Station. I purchased and preloaded SmartTrip Cards and Charm Cards ahead of time for the Metro. This was totally worthwhile, especially when we cut our train home too close. Fumbling with ticket purchases is probably my least favorite part of public transportation and SmartTrip Cards/Charm Cards are not only interchangeable, they work on MTA light rail and buses too. We sailed through the Metro. Red line to Metro Center. Blue, Orange, or Silver Line to Smithsonian. Wow, I love a well-designed subway map. If you just keep track of which endpoint you are heading toward, you are all set.

We arrived at the Mall at a lousy time. Too close to lunch. My kids were mostly interested in the Museum of Natural History, so we headed there. The cafe had an incredibly long line. The guy at the information both pointed out that it was overpriced too. Even he recommended packing a lunch next time. Touché, information booth guy. I certainly will next time, but this time we were stuck with sub-par food trucks.

Still, the Museum of Natural History was a winner. Afterall, how can you not like a butterfly garden?

And I am always surprised, but my second favorite exhibit is probably gemstones, because honestly quartz is beautiful...

...and topaz is awesome.

Personally, I'm not that wowed by the Hope Diamond, but it's there too.

My kids transformed themselves into homo neanderthalensis and homo floresiensis in the Human Origins Exhibit. Adorable, aren't they?

We headed outside to enjoy some ice cream and walk along the Mall.


While I would have loved to explore the Washington Monument, you have to get there by no later that 6:30am to buy tickets, so clearly, that is never, ever, ever going to happen. At least we could enjoy the outside.

Next, we headed to the Air and Space Museum. I hadn't been before but again, you could get absorbed with the exhibits for the whole day. I loved the Wilbur and Orville Wright exhibit, but the Lunar Landings were also incredibly interesting. No good pics of this one, but I assure you it's worth the time.

We decided to head home. We raced back to the Metro so that we wouldn't have to wait an hour for the next departure time. Trains were incredibly easy to catch and I noticed a certain confidence as my travel companions kept up with my pace, or was it the other way around? Blue line to Metro Center. Red line to Union Station. And a mad dash to the MARC train. They were like spy kids, deftly managing the escalators and we made it with exactly one minute to spare. Proud mom moment. No lost kids. Did I mention I made them write my cell phone number on their arms before we left. Yep. I did. We need to get that one committed to memory, just in case.


Drop and Doodle

This week I'm hanging out at with Heather at Cool Progeny. My official title is guest doodler. Pretty impressive, don't you think? Heather has started a new project which I wholly endorse. Drop Everything and Doodle is a challenge to spend a few minutes each week drawing with your kids. This is a moment to share and connect and just be silly. And, if you're feeling brave, please share your doodles on instagram or twitter with #dropanddoodle.

Each week Heather will be giving a one word prompt. This week, in honor of Valentine's Day, the prompt is "love." So grab those markers, or crayons, or pencils and get to it!

PrestoBingo Colors Educational App is Here!

Today’s the big day! We are launching our new children’s educational app on the app store — PrestoBingo Colors!

Our studio has been developing this app for over a year. Designing, drawing, coding, testing and re-testing and it’s finally ready. The colors are divided into 3 levels. If your little one is just beginning to learn colors, you can set the app to level one and cover the basics: black, blue, brown, gray, green, orange, pink, purple, red, white and yellow. Level two covers intermediate colors like turquoise, lavender and peach. And, just in case that’s not challenging enough, you can check out level three for super-advanced color. You do know what loden is, right? How about vermillion and chartreuse?

We hope you enjoy our app. You can download it from the app store here. Read more about our app projects on the PrestoBingo website, including our first app PrestoBingo Shapes


Stop Motion Project (introducing Mr. Sea Horse)

Animation is a recent obsession of my son's. It is entirely possible that he's found a loophole in the limited screen-time rule. He's using my iPhone to make these, and I'm planning on moving him over to my iPad, which admittedly is an even larger screen.

But when I watch what he's doing, I can't help but love it. He's drawing. He's telling stories. He's taking hundreds of pictures and so patiently moving his drawings bit by bit. He's even editing and adding sound. Here is his first story:

And the story continues...

I'm curious to see how far this project will go. If you would like to try your own, the app we are using is Stop Motion Studio.  I highly recommend it. It's a free app, with add-ons you can purchase if you need them. We also attached my iPhone to a tripod with this tripod mount. All we need now is better lighting and a stable work table and he will have a pretty decent animation studio.

So good, in fact, that I might just use it myself.

Foe: an Installation by Wayne White

WHAT: a cardboard sculpture installation by Wayne White
WHERE: Marketview Arts, York College Gallery (3rd floor) 37 W. Philadelphia Street, York PA
WHEN: April 4 - May 20, 2014, Monday through Saturday, 10am-4pm

We took a quick road trip to York, PA this weekend to see an exhibit by the artist Wayne White. Wayne White is best known for his work as a puppeteer and set designer for Pee Wee's Playhouse. Remember that show? He also art-directed Peter Gabriel’s music video "Big Time." I didn’t know his name at the time, but as an art student in college, I saw his work everywhere, and it was very influential to me. 


The focus of the show is the Civil War. White chose this topic to tie into York’s local history and specifically the invasion of York by General Jubal Early and his Confederate soldiers. The scale and detail of this show is incredible. Cubist-inspired figures loom 20 feet above. 

This installation

And yet the simplest details were equally entertaining. 


A few of the sculptures are actually giant puppets, with ropes to pull that control their movement.


This show has to be one of the best gallery shows I have seen in a long time. It’s not one to miss and I am sure my entire family would agree. That might be what I loved best about the show. It’s so accessible, yet smart. It practically begs you to start playing with shapes and forms. It left us itching to empty the recycling bin and see what we could make. 


A Tiny Healthcare Rant, and a Tip

I've been watching our healthcare costs skyrocket. Have you? I know some of these changes are for the good, and I'm trying to just wait out the chaos. We're self-employed, and therefore have always been self-insured. Our insurance has more than doubled in the last two years. Now I've realized there is a new thing I need to watch – the cost of prescription medicines. I always thought that they cost what they cost. Maybe that was naive of me. I knew my prescription card probably gave me a bit of a discount, but for the most part I assumed we were all on a semi-even playing field. 

We are not.

My kids have mild seasonal allergies. Nothing big. But recently I've been shopping around. Long story short, today I held two bottles of the same medicine in my hands. Same brand, same dosage, same store, same everything. One cost $14.00. One cost $125.00. The pharmacist seemed only slightly surprised which makes me think this happens all the time. 

Shop around. The website I used was I highly recommend it. When I saw the crazy-high price today, I pulled out my phone, showed the pharmacist the price I wanted and it was fixed in a jiffy. My question? If it costs less than $14.00 to make this drug, where does all the extra money go?


Spur Gallery Presents – Eureka!

What: Gallery Opening of Eureka! Impractical Solutions
Where: Spur Gallery, 
3504 Ash Street, Baltimore, MD 21211
When: April 26, 6:30 - 8:30 p.m.

You may know that both Dave and I regularly teach classes at MICA. Dave’s class this semester is a grad-level class on the illustrated poster. This show is designed and installed by his class. So stop by, see some great art, and chat with the illustrators and designers. Details on the show are posted below:

Illustration by Kevin Valente

Illustration by Kevin Valente

Eureka! Impractical Solutions

How does hair grow? Why do boats float? Where do dreams come from?

The answers might surprise you.

Designers and creative professionals approach problem-solving in unconventional ways. In Eureka!, MICA graduate illustrators and designers use impractical and unfettered thinking to create posters that propose new solutions to old questions.

Featuring the work of Yu Chen, Sarah Claggett, Jasu Hu, Sarah Jacoby, Winnie Kuo, Jackie Littman, Sally Maier, Valleria Molinari, Shiva Nallperumal, Sara Shahabi, Iris Sprague, Kevin Valente, Lolo Zhang, and guided by David Plunkert.

Join us for the opening reception at the Spur Gallery on Saturday, April 26, 6:30 - 8:30 pm. Free and open to the public.

Jeremy Holmes, Children's Book Illustrator


When Jeremy Holmes’ first book, There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly came out I thought it was ground-breaking. How could something so creepy yet beautiful get published for children? It is a brilliant re-telling of a classic story, and definitely worth adding to your bookshelf.

I've been paying attention to his work ever since, and recently invited him to come to MICA to discuss his process with my students. He brought tons of printed books and original drawings and sketches.

Jeremy is a designer turned illustrator. His sense of type merges so beautifully with his illustrations. The amount of time he puts into each piece, especially the newer ones, is mind-boggling. I love the result. Jeremy might be one of the hardest working illustrators I know. But his work is smart too, which is a pretty great combination.

If you have an older reader, check out The Templeton Twins, written by Ellis Weiner and illustrated by Jeremy. This series follows John and Abigail Templeton, twins with a tendency for adventure who get kidnapped by... wait for it... a set of twins.


We even got a look at the original art for his new book which just hit the bookstores in January – Poem-mobiles: Crazy Car Poems, by J. Patrick Lewis and Douglas Florian.


Seeing his pencil drawings on vellum was inspiring. The coloring process was intense too, with many variations, but I think you'll agree that the result was completely worth it.


Illustrations for the New York Times

I've been illustrating a lot of stories lately for the New York Times column, "18 and Under." Pediatrician Dr. Perri Klass writes about a wide range of kid topics – from baby on up to college. Sometimes the topics are a bit challenging (how do you illustrate a story about kids and constipation?), but I admit that the editorial geek in me loves solving the puzzle. So here's a roundup:

This is the most recent one, for a story about how roommates can affect your college-aged child. I got to draw a strangely neat dorm room inside two gigantic heads. What could be better?


And this illustration was for a story about manners (or lack thereof) in the doctor's office. I put a baby doll in it, which I think is pretty trite for an illustration on kids, but it's okay because I pulled it's head off.


Best title ever – "To Smoosh Peas is to Learn." This story is about how babies learn by touching, smearing and feeling their food.


Traveling with kids to exotic places. What could go wrong?


This story is about how to handle shyness with kids. I can totally relate. As a kid I felt painfully shy, and I see the same tendency in my daughter. But my son – not a shy bone in his body. I think he's the kid in front.


 And back to older kids, this story was about getting your kids ready to take care of their health needs as they head off to college. Yep, we'll be there in just a few years when our oldest graduates high school.


Okay, here it is – constipation and kids. Sometimes, you just have to keep drawing, and drawing, and drawing until you figure it out.




Snow Fort!

I think it's safe to say that every parent in the Baltimore area is collectively tired of snow, right? It feels like ages since any of my kids went to a full week of school and although the driveways and roads are fairly clear now, I don't think we will be seeing the grass any time soon.

In the plus column, this is amazing packing snow. Everytime I check my Facebook feed it seems to be full of creative snow sculptures (Apparently I have rather creative Facebook friends). 

I can take no credit for the snowfort that appeared in our front yard. It kept Dave and the kids (mostly Jacob) busy for hours. They packed snow into plastic bins to form the blocks. 


The roof proved to be a little challenging, but it's rather sturdy for now. 


And don't forget furniture. They added a chair, table and even a bed that has a little snow pillow. 


These two have moved in. I'll miss them, but hopefully they will visit soon.

Making Soap, sort of...


"Making soap" isn't really accurate for this project, but "melting and reforming soap" just isn't a catchy title. So here we go.

These soaps made great holiday gifts this year. They were incredibly easy to make, not expensive, and definitely not messy. Afterall, how hard is it to clean up soap?

The variations on this could be endless, so experiment and have fun.

You will need:

Higher temperature glycerin soap base
Lower temperature white soap base
Scented oil
Soap molds and/or empty cardboard juice cartons with the top cut off
Soap cutter or sharp kitchen knife
Glass measuring cup

1. Start by making the colored cubes. Microwave higher temperature glycerin soap on high, in a glass measuring cup. Microwave until it becomes liquid. Soap melts really quickly, so keep constant watch on it.

2. Add colorant and stir. We used a liquid colorant. Feel free to mix the colors as you like. I'll take any excuse to work in a little lesson on color theory.

3. Add scented oil and stir.

4. Pour into soap molds or carton. Let cool for 30 minutes or until set.


5. Remove soap from mold or carton and chop into 1/2 inch cubes. Cutting the soap is extremely rewarding. I had to fight for a turn. Afterwards I handed the soap cutter back to the kids. They were able to manage just fine, but you may need to supervise.


6. Melt lower temperature white soap. You could add more scent or colorant here too.

7. Now combine the cubes with the soap base. Drop glycerin cubes into carton while at the same time pouring in the white soap until the cubes are just barely covered. It helps to have two people working on this at the same time. Let set until firm. Peel away carton and cut into bars. All done!


Calder’s Circus

Alexander Calder, the famous American sculptor, created a tiny circus, complete with lions, sword swallowers and acrobats from 1926-31. The tiny performers were sculpted out of fabric, wire and other materials. They danced, and spun, and jumped from trapeze to trapeze as Calder moved them around the stage. Calder performed The Circus for decades and it traveled back and forth from Paris to the United States. The circus and performers are now housed in the Whitney Museum, having been carefully restored and preserved.

I imagine that over the years, the performances evolved quite a bit. At the time of the restoration, there were signs of wear and tear. Patches, upon patches. So I like to think that even if the original performers stayed basically the same, the performance grew and shifted, as things do.

Fortunately, a few videos of Calder performing his circus exist, of the later years.

I love watching him perform. In some versions you can see his wife in the background, putting up with her husband's obsession. I feel her pain. But really, Calder is amazing.

Sooo.... a recent assignment, for my grad students, was to create a performer for Calder's Circus. Any type of creature was up for grabs. They were giving a short list of materials (fabric, string, wire, feathers, paper, etc) and a tight deadline (I love a tight deadline). Here is what they came up with.

My students came up with some pretty awesome solutions, but I think this could be a great project for kids too. Limit the materials, give a few easy ideas for how to apply movement, and let them go wild...

Catching Up

I feel like I've been so immersed in kid-related projects lately, that I've completely neglected mentioning some of them here. I'm going to take a moment to catch up and tell you all what I've been up to.

Every semester, for the last 4 years, I've taught at class at Maryland Institute College of Art. I love my day each week at MICA. My students amaze me. I admit I teach there for some purely selfish reasons. I learn so much from my students, although I'm pretty sure it's supposed to be the other way around.

This semester, I decided to teach something different – a class on Markets for Children for the graduate Illustration Practice program. I'm going to post just a few of the things that have been happening with the class.


Also, on the horizon are some fun projects at the studio that I hope I can share in more detail soon. A new app is coming and a new publishing project that I can't wait to share!




Mummies of the World


I stopped by the Maryland Science Center this morning to preview their new exhibition, Mummies of the World. My younger daughter is mummy-obsessed, which might be a little unique for an 8 year-old girl. I haven’t been able to pinpoint the source of the attraction – history, science, the general creep-factor? In any case, this show is a must-see for our whole family.

By the way, I put the nice Egyptian art at the top of this post. If you don't want to see what the mummies look like, don't scroll down. 


On the other hand, I do think some kids might be frightened by this show. Almost all of the 40+ mummies on display are not wrapped. You can see details that are amazingly well-preserved. Fingers, toes, a tattoo, and even eyelashes. And these are very real people. They are presented respectfully, but very up-close and at times it feels a little intimate. There are stories to accompany the mummies, like the Orlovits family – Michael, Veronica and their son Johannes. They were part of a group of mummies found in a long forgotten crypt in Vac, Hungary, complete with name cards. I met with “mummyologist” Heather Gill-Frerking, a biological anthropologist and she describes the mummies as “adorable,” as does my sweet Emma, so maybe it is all in the eye of the beholder. I like Dr. Gill-Frerking’s take on bringing kids. “People know their kids. They know what they like.” She adds, “I can’t tell you how many nose prints we clean off the glasses.”


There is a lot to learn here. How are mummies made? How did these people live? What diseases did they have? What can we learn from their DNA? So many things.

My big lesson? How bog bodies are made. Emma is fascinated by bog bodies and Dr. Gill-Frerking is an expert. According to Dr. Gill-Frerking, bogs are very good for preserving skin, and fur, and fabric, but terrible for bones. More water actually preserves the bodies better. Bogs are acidic so they leach the minerals from the bone. The bone gets very soft and can be squished flat by the weight of the overlying peat. See, you learn something new every day.

The show opens to the public September 28, 2013 and runs until January 20, 2014.

Running on the NCR Trail

I am not a runner. But this summer, one of my favorite places to be was the NCR trail. And somehow (actually I know exactly how) I ended up spending a fair amount of time running on the trail. 


The Northern Central Railroad Trail extends 20 miles from Ashland Road in Hunt Valley to the Pennsylvania state line. It then continues in Pennsylvania as the York County Heritage Trail. It is up to 10 feet wide and passes through some absolutely beautiful Maryland landscape. A lot of it runs along the Gunpowder River, through shady forest. You might pass people on innertubes, or bikes, or even horses. Whatever works.


My daughter started Cross Country this year. Yep. We've hit high school, and suddenly so much has shifted. We have limited places to run nearby, and I wanted to make her summer practice not quite so boring. Personally, I can kind of embrace the boredom of running. I like that mindless time to not be anywhere. To turn off. But isn't it always nicer with amazing scenery? Yes.


So the trail became part of our morning routine. I took all of the kids at first, and then, as the distances grew, just her. She ran up ahead, but I was never far away. So if she ran 3 miles, I could sneak by with 2 and really be just a half mile away at any given point, right? But the miles grew, and soon I was at 4 (with her at 5). And then she went away to camp. I didn't see her for 2 weeks. You know what happened? I ran anyway. I ran in the rain. And it was amazing.

She came home. Cross country practice started and it meant that she would be running with the team instead of me. Last Saturday I ran 5 miles, which may not be that far, but it's a personal best for me. It was cool and beautiful and perfect, and I think I just might keep running.