Reference Couch: Birthday Blues

The Reference Couch

In Which A Librarian Tries to Solve Your Personal Problems with Literature

Q: My daughter just started second grade this year and has already been invited to a handful of lavish Pinterest-worthy birthday parties by her classmates, with swag bags to boot! I don’t have the budget to throw a big shin-dig for her birthday next month and to be honest I think it’s all a bit much. How can I give her a party that’s modest enough for me and fun enough for her and her friends?


So-So on the Soirees

A: Dear So-So,

I’m not sure what kind of swag a second-grader requires and, like you, I don’t really want to spend any more time than this sentence thinking about it. But there are lots of ways your daughter and her friends can have an great celebration without breaking the bank or giving anyone “princess syndrome“.  And the library can help!!!


Punky Brewster AKA Soleil Moon Frye wrote a DIY kid’s party book, Let’s Get This Party Started, that’s more about having fun and letting kids be kids than having a picture perfect day. Her party ideas include a simple slumber party with craft activities like painting pillowcases and making your own Truth or Dare dice and a pancake recipe for the morning. Or how about an “explorer” party that’s even easier: ants on a log, black smudges under their eyes and send them out into the yard for hide-and-seek!

Birthday Parties for Kids was written before parents started renting out ski resorts and unicorns for toddlers, so it’s suggestions are decidedly low-key and focus more on activities and snacks than photo-ops and catering. My favorite is Balloon Bodybuiding, which is blowing up balloons and shoving them inside your sweatshirt and pretending to be a bodybuilder. Five or so of these types of games and a boxed cake mix and you’ve got two or three hours of fun before someone eventually gets a bloody nose.

One of my favorite party planning books is Absolutely Unforgettable Parties, written for adults but also applicable to the wee ones. Throw the party no one on Pinterest is throwing: A Reincarnation Party. “Come as you were!”

Naturally Fun Parties For Kids is a little more intense, with the laying out tasks for you to set up 4 weeks ahead of time, which is about 3 and a half weeks more planning than I prefer. However, there are some unexpected ideas for themes that you can modify to your liking. Like a Gratitude Birthday Party that encourages children to think about what they’re thankful for (and eat macaroni and cheese!) and a Wild Girls TeePee Party: the opposite of a fancy tea party, where girls can run around, make noise, and get dirty as long as they where intricate flower crowns while they’re doing it.


Though themes are amusing for adults, I don’t know any kids who would refuse to come to a party because the malted milk balls weren’t labeled as Star Wars Thermal Detonators or Yaargh Pirate Cannons or Vintage Woodland Bear Poop. They would probably just be happy with the milk balls and you would probably be happier not staying up until 3 AM when you’re going to have a bunch of six-year-olds running around your house the next day.

So don’t feel tied to making a party about one specific thing. Instead, focus on what the kids are actually going to do. Otherwise, your tiny guests are probably going to break something or cause the aforementioned nosebleed.

Get a group together to cook something fun like pizza, smoothies, soda floats or pie (Icebox Pies might be what you’re looking for for smaller children, each recipe is a no-bake). Check out yoga for kids and have a yoga party. Send them outside with the Big Book of Nature Projects or, in winter, the incredibly awesome Snow Play, which includes instructions glowing igloos and snow monsters. We’ve got lots of books about science projects like The Science Chef or Sandbox Scientist and none of the experiments will start a home fire, probably.

Don’t feel like having to lead an activity? Check out some scary movies or not-so-scary movies and pop some popcorn. Grab a dance instruction video, lock them in a room for a few hours and tell them you expect a fully choreographed routine before the cake candles are blown out. Check out old fifties music or eighties music and have a “prom”. Just don’t spike the punch.

At the end of the day, you don’t need a lot of money or a degree in Posh Crafts or even a librarian to show kids a good time (but you asked). I hope this post warms you up to parties, So-So. Happy birthday to your daughter!

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Annie’s Best of Summer

Richard Marx is sad because summer is ending.
Richard Marx is sad because summer is ending.

Hold on to the nights.

Hold on to the memmmmorrries! 

It’s still officially summer until September 22, pumpkin spiced sundries be damned. I’ll have to close up my friendship bracelet supply/tackle box and reorganize the tights by thickness soon, but until then I can hold onto the memmmmmorrries!



Here are my best summer book memories:

Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella: This is the book that Field of Dreams is based on and it is dreamy and lyrical and wonderful and makes you want to visit Iowa.




Just Kids by Patti Smith: This has been on my to-read list for awhile now. It took a road trip and the desire to read about the passion of art for me to pick up Smith’s memoir of art and deep love and New York and I’m so glad I did.


Fall, for me, is a time to get a bit juicier and darker with my reading. Here are a few on my list for the upcoming months:


Unabrow: Misadventures of a Late Bloomer by Una LaMarche is my back to school read. Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, A Mystery and a Masquerade by Walter Kim and  Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff will take me through my late October dark creepy happenings stage.  The Brontes: Wild Genius on the Moors by Juliet Barker will either stave off or feed the growing madness that comes with impending winter.

I wish that I could giiiiiiiiiiiive you more, but that’s it.

Oh wait, this:


Selected Shorts

I hate shorts. I haven’t worn them since culottes went out of style. They’re uncomfortable and they’re never the right length and my thighs always stick to the chairs and they are terrible.

My mom made these in a Save the Rainforest print for me.
My mom made these in a Save the Rainforest print for me.

So this isn’t about those kind of awful shorts. This is about nice shorts. FREE Shorts. Shorts that won’t chafe.

Selected Shorts is a weekly radio show that airs readings of short stories, and also records live performances of people reading short works at the Symphony Space in New York City (new life goal: make it to one of these shows). And our audiobook collection has several of these collections, because my co-worker Betsy is awesome.

The recordings are usually based around a theme: women writers, road trip stories, baseball, food, or whodunits to name a few. They are the opposite of wearable shorts: neither too short or too long, they envelop you in comfort instead of sorrow and displeasure , and they…that’s all the shorts metaphors I can think of and I’d venture a guess you’re tiring of it as well, ay?

Anyway, they’re great. It’s the next best thing to actually attending a reading, plus you can be running errands or cleaning out your cat litter while you listen.

One of my recent favorites was listening to Holly Hunter read  “The Story of My Life” by Kim Edwards in the Wondrous Women recording. I also didn’t realize Grace Paley’s story “The Loudest Voice” was actually hilarious until I listened to it on the Family Matters recording. I even checked out the William Hurt collection and the only thing I’ve seen him in is Broadcast News (you caught me, I’m a Holly Hunter superfan). And guess what? It was amazing. He read a Tobias Wolff story and made me cry.

Listening to a story read can evoke emotions that reading in silence cannot and the added bonus of hearing the audience laugh or getting to hear a story in Angelica Huston’s voice instead of your own gives a tale so much shape. Also, you can pretend that whoever your listening to is your friend telling you a story, in my case:

It’s September now. Time for pants. So put some on, get over here and check out these Selected Shorts.