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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