A children’s Harry Potter birthday party

My son just turned nine (wut) and had requested a Harry Potter party. Our house is very small with no discernable yard — and it’s winter here — so we decided on a “movie” pyjama party, based on my misguided theory that kids in their PJs would be less likely to run around shouting.

Needless to say, very little movie-watching took place. But fun was had regardless. I thought since it was a book-related party I’d share my experience here, in case it is of benefit to others.

(Note: Check the run time of the movie before you start. I forgot quite how long Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone actually runs — we didn’t quite make it through the movie before the other parents came to collect their kids. It wasn’t a big deal, though, given how little time was spent in front of the TV.)

The Food

Our budget didn’t stretch to actual Harry Potter brand food, especially since I’d have had to order it in from the UK, so I made do. We bought lolly snakes, chocolate frogs and other snacks, but then I gave them a Harry Potter theme by labelling each bowl with Honeydukes-inspired labels. (This also meant I could flag the contents of each for those kids with dietary requirements.)

For example, the snakes became “Basilisk Bites” and our Jelly Belly jellybeans were “Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans”. My son and I got around the fact they weren’t every flavour by faking it, which the other adults got in on. “Oh, gross, I just got a soap-flavoured one!”

The “Cake”

My son doesn’t like icing (I know, right?) so we decided to do homemade muffins in house-coloured cupcake wrappers instead. I googled “butterscotch muffins”, thinking I’d claim they were butterbeer, and ended up using this recipe from taste.com.au. I found it was a little dry, so added a little extra buttermilk, and because we didn’t use the caramel sauce due to my fear of sticky pre-teens, I added a splash of maple syrup as well. I’m not a baker, generally, so I was pleased at how nicely they turned out.

The one Potter-ish food thing I did order was the cupcake toppers, which were super-easy to apply. I did have to add a very thin layer of icing sugar (with a splash of boiling water to make a paste), just to get the toppers to stick, but I got away with it. ūüėČ

Wizarding Accessories

Wands

Far and away the most time-consuming (but satisfying) part of the party prep was making the wands. My talented friend Craig and I spent hours on these, though the materials themselves were quite cheap: a packet of wooden chopsticks, a glue gun and a packet of beads. Craig already owned the paint, which would’ve been a huge extra expense if I’d had to get it myself.

Each kid got to chose a wand — there were six children and twelve wands, so I get the spares! — and I’d done up a card for each one with a core and wood based on this page, so they all had unique “powers”. The kids spent the vast majority of the party dividing into tribes and flinging curses at each other. It was a little Lord of the Flies, not gonna lie, but they had fun.

Photos, detail work and amazing talent by Craig. Dribbly “organic” wands by me.

Wizard Hats

I painted the party hats black and then used my glue gun to stick stars all over them. Quick and easy!

Party hat graciously modelled by Professor McGonagall

The Games

Sorting Hat

All the kids who came knew their Hogwarts houses in advance (because we’re those sorts of people), but I’d downloaded and printed a couple of origami “sorting hats” from this site, which got quite a bit of use.

Pass the Parseltongue

This was regular pass the parcel, but with toy snakes, lizards and frogs in each layer.

Stick the Sock on the Dobby

I drew Dobby onto a sheet of A3 cardboard and then made socks for the kids to stick on him with sticky tac. I had prizes for those that got their sock into his hand and for the funniest placement (which ended up being an earring).

Musical Statues

As well as pausing the music, I used my wand to cast the charm “immobulus” (the freezing charm). It was a bit of a juggle managing both, so I had to get the other parents to judge who was out each round.

Other Games

I had organised a few other party games that we didn’t get to because the kids wanted to get back to flinging curses.

  • A “Celebrity Head” style game — I had a plain black party hat and some stickers that I was going to write Potter character names on so each child could have a turn at guessing who they were.
  • Memorise the spell — Starting with a “base spell” word, each kid has to repeat what has been said previously and then add a new word to the spell, going around in a circle, so that you end up with a string of gibberish.
  • Transfiguration class — I found a packet of animal noses and was going to get each child to cast a spell on themselves to “transform” and draw a nose from a bag.

The Prizes

Again, I didn’t have a huge budget for prizes, so I went for theme rather than brand. As well as the parseltongue lizards etc, I found a cheap pack of dragons at the local two dollar shop. I stuck some googley eyes on pompoms and called them pygmy puffs. I bought a grey Ikea rat to be Scabbers, and a little while owl to be Hedwig.

I had more prizes than we actually needed, so I divided up what was left into the party bags at the end. (Except for Scabbers. He lives with me now.)

Conclusion

All in all, everyone had fun — including me, as the whole thing appealed to my inner Ravenclaw. My boy has already told me he wants a Doctor Who party next year, which I think will be trickier.

For now, I’ll be over here, collapsed in a pile of wizarding robes and left-over lollies.

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Mini-review: ‘Doctor Who: Time Lord Fairy Tales’ by Justin Richards

WE ARE ALL STORIES, IN THE END…

Fifteen tales of ancient wonder and mystery, passed down through generations of Time Lords.

Dark, beautiful and twisted, these stories are filled with nightmarish terrors and heroic triumphs, from across all of time and space.

The first thing you need to know about this book is that — despite the name — the stories aren’t Time Lord fairy tales in the strictest sense. They aren’t fairy tales that Time Lords (the race of aliens that the Doctor is) tell their kids. Instead, these are retellings of traditional fairy tales, but as if they were told in the world of Doctor Who. There are five with the Doctor actually in them (Two, Nine, Ten and Eleven, from memory), and a bunch of others that feature the various alien races from the show.

The stories are, sadly, variable. Some of them are clever, a little unpredictable, and feature cameos from beloved characters. (For example, the lead character from ‘Little Rose Riding Hood’ is a younger version of Rose Tyler.) Others are kind of bland. I don’t know what fairy tale ‘The Twins in the Wood’ is based off, but despite that I found the story utterly predictable — it suffered from having no stakes whatsoever.

Still, the good stories did outnumber the bad ones, and if you’re a fan of Who, then the book is worth a read for ‘The Scruffy Piper‘ and ‘The Grief Collector’ alone. (Also, the hardcover is totally gorgeous, if a book’s aesthetic is important to you.)

If you’re not a fan of Who, read the Begin, End, Begin anthology instead — you won’t regret it.

 


Review: ‘The Awkward Path to Getting Lucky’ by Summer Heacock

A humorous novel about a cupcake shop owner with a physical ailment that’s kept her from having sex for two years, and the desperate antics that ensue as she tries to overcome it.

Having sex wasn’t a big priority while Kat Carmichael’s successful cupcake shop was taking off. But when she realizes that it’s been nearly two years since she and her boyfriend, Ryan, have been intimate, she makes a pact to break her dry spell-and cure her vaginismus, a muscular condition that can make sex physically impossible.

Out of guilt, Kat calls for a break in her relationship with Ryan, so that he can see other people while she attempts to fix the issue on her own. She throws herself into physical therapy, but soon discovers her solo mission is more complicated than she anticipated. Fortunately, Ben Cleary, the shop’s best (looking) customer, is also a physical therapist, and volunteers to help out.

As time goes on, however, the boundaries Ben and Kat have set between friendship and love quickly become blurred, leaving her more confused than ever about what to hang on to and what to let go.

I haven’t read a lot of chick lit before, so this book was a brilliant way to expose myself (har har) to the genre. It is hilariously funny, with a “what can go wrong probably will” vibe and a self-described Type A main character who doesn’t like to ask for help and regularly blurts out what she’s thinking and then regrets it later.

I love Kat. But I especially love her in the context of her friends/co-workers at the cupcake shop: feisty best friend Shannon, edible-glitter-obsessed bisexual Butter and shy bride-to-be Liz. The four of them are frequently bawdy and always frank with one another, and after Kat reveals her condition to the others in a truly giggle-worthy conversation, they band around to provide moral support and sex toys to help with her therapy.

The burgeoning relationship with Ben is adorable. He’s earnest and more than a little awkward, though he generally takes things with good humour. However, he’s not a doormat and when Kat crosses the line he isn’t afraid to tell her so. Despite everything, their romance is actually touching and sweeter than one of Butter’s cupcake recipes. I ship them so hard!

As for Ryan, I was prepared to hate him, as I assumed was traditional, but — although he’s not my type (or Kat’s, really) — he is good best friend material. It just takes both of them a while to figure that out.

Summer is great at setting up awkward situations and then letting the humour roll, but where she truly shines is in writing dialogue. Kat, Ben and Ryan are also all nerds, which warms my heart. This book is a great read for anyone who likes to laugh, isn’t too prudish, and wants to read about cupcakes all day.

It even comes with some of Butter’s recipes at the back, you guys. It’s basically perfect.


Review: ‘Fangirl’ by Rainbow Rowell

Cath and Wren are identical twins, and until recently they did absolutely everything together. Now they’re off to university and Wren’s decided she doesn’t want to be one half of a pair any more — she wants to dance, meet boys, go to parties and let loose. It’s not so easy for Cath. She’s horribly shy and has always buried herself in the fan fiction she writes, where she always knows exactly what to say and can write a romance far more intense than anything she’s experienced in real life.

Without Wren, Cath is completely on her own and totally outside her comfort zone. She’s got a surly room-mate with a charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fan fiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words . . . And she can’t stop worrying about her dad, who’s loving and fragile and has never really been alone.

Now Cath has to decide whether she’s ready to open her heart to new people and new experiences, and she’s realizing that there’s more to learn about love than she ever thought possible.

I read my first Rainbow Rowell novel last year: Eleanor & Park is exceptionally well written, albeit darker than I was expecting. Maybe I was subconsciously misled by the fact the author’s first name was “Rainbow”? :p

Still, when I heard Rowell had written a novel about a girl obsessed with fan fiction (aka fanfic) about a series of books inspired by Harry Potter, I was definitely keen. Those are two brands of geeky subculture that I’m familiar with;¬†I experimented with fanfic when I was in my 20s (although when I say it like that it makes fanfic sound like illegal drugs or something!) — and Harry Potter … well, duh! I haven’t been living under a bush.

Fangirl blew me away. I’ve really fallen in love with the subgenre of YA that is geeky contemporary over the past few years, and this book is another addition to that shelf. Rowell’s writing shines here, both in the day-to-day tale of Cath’s life and in the extensive excerpts of her fanfic. I was just as hooked by her take on her Simon/Baz fic as I was by her main storyline. Happily,¬†Carry On, the fanfic story that Cath works on throughout Fangirl, is also now available as a novel — a fact so meta that it makes me grin. I’ll definitely be buying it as soon as I can.

As for Cath, it’s hard not to love her. She struggles with anxiety, which is made worse by her twin, Wren, effectively abandoning her as soon as they hit university. Her father is bipolar so Cath spends a lot of time worrying about him — and Wren has her own issues, which she seeks to forget about through her new party lifestyle. At times, as much as I understood what she was going through, I wanted to shake Wren till her teeth rattled; she has moments where she is particularly mean-spirited. The times that Cath stood up to her were some of my favourite parts of the book.

There is a romance here, though it’s hard not to name names without spoilers. There are a couple of different males on the scene, but this isn’t a love triangle in the traditional sense. One of the guys turns out to be a selfish a-hole and the other is a sweetheart. There’s no competition. And that’s all I will say about that.

As far as other characters go, I adored Reagan, Cath’s roommate. Despite how prickly she is, she takes Cath under her wing in a “tough love” way that it’s hard not to love. Also, Professor Piper receives a notable mention — she’s the sort of supportive writing lecturer I wish I’d had when I was at university. (And I love the way Rowell handled the storyline as it related to Cath and Wren’s mother. So realistic!)

Fangirl is a story about stories, about getting out of your comfort zone, and about finding out who you are. I love it.

 

 


Review: ‘The Secret Science of Magic’ by Melissa Keil

Sophia is smart, like genius-calculator-brain smart. But there are some things no amount of genius can prepare you for, and the messiness of real life is one of them. When everything she knows is falling apart, how can she crack the puzzle of what to do with her life?

Joshua spends his time honing magic tricks and planning how to win Sophia’s heart. But when your best trick is making schoolwork disappear, how do you possibly romance a genius?

In life and love, timing is everything.

I know I’ve said this before (possibly in my last review of a Melissa Keil book), but I want to be Melissa Keil when I grow up. She writes the most amazingly geeky and relatable (to me) characters.

In The Secret Science of Magic, we have Sophia, a maths genius and Doctor Who fan who has all the¬†hallmarks of being on the autism spectrum disorder (although she is bafflingly never diagnosed), along with a massive helping of anxiety attacks and self-doubt (presumably from the lack of diagnosis and treatment). She’s also a POC, although her¬†family is very “Australian” as far as I can tell —¬†if there were any¬†elements from other cultures in there I missed them.

Sophia is struggling through¬†the last year of high school, trying very hard not to think about her only friend’s impending departure to study medicine in the US. She’s acing most of her classes and doing university-level maths on the side, but was pressured into doing drama, which she hates and is terrible at. She has fixated on a Russian maths genius who went off the rails, trying, in her methodical way, to figure out where he went wrong so that she can avoid it — a bit like Hazel in The Fault in Our Stars, but without the road trip.

Elsie, Sophia’s best friend,¬†is from a largish South Asian family, with three¬†brothers who look lout for Sophia the way her own brother generally doesn’t. But there is growing tension there, which Sophia doesn’t really understand. The clues are all there,¬†not¬†just for the reader (as is often the case) but for Sophia too — the problem is that Sophia simply doesn’t know how to recognise or interpret them.

(I’m so mad at Sophia’s counsellor, by the way. We never actually see said counsellor, but surely if they were halfway competent they could have recognised what was going on with her! Gah!)

Joshua, the other point of view character, has a long-standing crush on Sophia, a lisp that emerges when he’s anxious, and a talent for magic tricks. He decides to finally¬†start wooing her, getting her attention with tricks that are mostly cute and motivated by a desire to help her with her various problems, but that sometimes cross the line for me (for example when he stole her watch; even though she did get it back later, that¬†was uncool, Joshua!). Happily, he does grow over the course of the book and, by the end, he comes good. ūüėČ

I really enjoyed this story, which — more¬†broadly — tackles¬†the¬†YA issues of “coping with the end of school” and “what next”, as well as the universal human issue¬†of self-acceptance.¬†The romance was tentative and sweet, and my heart broke for Sophia and her confusion and social anxiety. The Doctor Who references¬†made me happy, and Josh’s various magic tricks,¬†while not really my thing, made me smile.

Melissa Keil’s books are ones I wish I’d had as a teenager; I’m totally buying copies for my friends’ geeky pre-teen when she’s a few years older.


My name is Cassandra, and I’m a Pokemon GO addict…

Vaporeon Pokemon GoI was on holidays when Pokemon GO¬†came out. But I still had my smart phone, so I saw the flood of posts on social media. At first I was¬†bemused by the idea, because I never really got into Pokemon¬†as I was growing up. But my son is seven and a mad Pokemon fan;¬†he got about 15 Pokemon plushies for his birthday (including the Vaporeon pictured above). He’s seen a lot of the TV show — like, a lot¬†— and has some of the old games, though he hasn’t played them much due to the amount of fast reading required.

Anyway, I didn’t think much of the idea of Pokemon. How is going out and capturing wild animals and then using them in battles for sport a good idea? (Where is the RSPCA in this universe? Not to mention all the ten year old kids leaving home to go on adventures to catch said wild animals! And do the Pokeballs have toilets? So many questions!) Still, Pikachu was cute, and my boy enjoyed it and absorbed the various names and evolutions like a sponge.

On the other hand, once I learned¬†more about Pokemon GO, I was fascinated. I found the idea of augmented reality games, something I hadn’t really encountered before, strangely compelling.¬†So when my son came home after our holiday (via Sydney, where he stayed with his dad for a few days), I wasn’t exactly upset that he had a Pokemon GO account and was already level 14.

Of course, he doesn’t have a phone, so I have to play it with him. Right?

Seriously, this game is so much fun — and, more than that, I love how easy it is to get my couch potato of a child out of the house. On Friday I got a tip-off from someone at work of a good place to catch Pikachu. Normally my boy would prefer to sit at home and watch Pokemon on TV, especially after school, but instead we scooted down to the local lake and spent an hour stomping around, playing at the park and making friends with people’s dogs.

There is a spectrum of people who play Pokemon GO, as there is in any other endeavour, but for the most part I’ve found them to be friendly and open. Sure, we’ve come across the¬†occasional pack of swearing teenage boys (something I wouldn’t have an issue with if my boy weren’t listening), and after we captured a gym the look on one young man’s face as he stormed up gave me pause. Boy, was he pissed!

But there have been a lot of people¬†like me, taking their kids out for a stroll and catching Eevees. We’ve seen a lady taking her parrot out for some air, randomly met¬†some kids my boy knew from school, and commiserated with strangers when their Squirtle¬†ran away. We’ve also been out to a lot of local tourist attractions, hunting for Pokemon. (If you’re visiting Canberra,¬†get a friend to drive you around all the Poke-stops in the arboretum. Wow!)

I’m not a Pokemon expert yet, by any stretch of the imagination,¬†but luckily I have¬†a small consultant to hand. I’ve¬†finally figured out how to throw a decent curveball, and¬†we’ve evolved a Raichu. I’m still not 100% sure about the “wild animals battling” thing, but it bothers me less in game form, where they are impersonal elemental forces, rather than in the TV show, where they can emote, and snuggle their owners. (I am suspicious of what the professor needs all those spare Pokemon for. Is he¬†feeding them into a¬†compactor to make candy? Building a Pokemon army?! Again, so many questions!)

Do you play Pokemon GO? Have you found it a positive experience overall?

Pokemon


Review: ‘The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl’ by Melissa Keil

The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl

Alba loves her life just as it is. She loves living behind the bakery, and waking up in a cloud of sugar and cinnamon. She loves drawing comics and watching bad TV with her friends. 

The only problem is she’s overlooked a few teeny details:

Like, the guy she thought long gone has unexpectedly reappeared.
And the boy who has been her best friend since forever has suddenly gone off the rails.
And even her latest comic-book creation is misbehaving.

Also, the world might be ending —¬†which is proving to be awkward.

As Doomsday enthusiasts flock to idyllic Eden Valley, Alba’s life is thrown into chaos. Whatever happens next, it’s the end of the world as she knows it. But when it comes to figuring out her heart, Armageddon might turn out to be the least of her problems.

When I grow up, I want to be Melissa Keil.

Cinnamon Girl is¬†her second young adult¬†novel, and I’ve adored both of them. She has this knack for capturing the issues that your typical teenager goes through (what will I do when I grow up, how do I handle this new relationship) while adding a touch of geekery that appeals to my nerdy heart. ‚̧

I gobbled this book up while I was on holidays, and I adored it. At just shy of 300 pages, it’s a shorter book, making it the perfect holiday read — and¬†it left me with a goofy smile on my face afterwards.

As is obvious from the blurb, Alba’s primary form of geekery is comic books. She’s a talented artist and wants to go to university to do a fine arts degree, but is in that end-of-year limbo where she’s finished high school but doesn’t yet know whether she made it into the course she’s after. This, combined with her friends’ different plans for what they want to do, leaves her with a panicked “live in the now” mindset that is echoed in the world around her, with its¬†whole pending apocalypse vibe. That last part aside,¬†the rest is something I could really relate to.

The relationship she has with her best friend, Grady, is basically the cutest. It’s pretty obvious¬†from the start that he has a crush on her, but although she is attracted to him she also has a massive blind spot as far as he is concerned — probably because they have been friends¬†since¬†they were¬†toddlers.¬†Although I was cheering for them to get together, I didn’t find the delay as frustrating as I have in other books, I suspect because there were a¬†lot of other interesting things going on.

As far as the apocalypse itself goes, Cinnamon Girl is a young adult contemporary, not a dystopian — it’s clear from the start of the book that the person forecasting the end of the world is a TV hack. But it’s really interesting to see the kaleidoscope that is the doomsday enthusiasts through Alba’s eyes.

Also, a special mention needs to go to all the food in this book. Alba lives and works in a bakery, and I spent the entire time I was reading this hankering for an apple danish or chocolate croissant. Mmm.

Cinnamon Girl is suitable for any age group¬†from maybe mid-teens. There isn’t actual swearing¬†or anything beyond kissing, though there is mention¬†of sex and drug use. It’s the end of the world; of course stoners show up for a party! ūüėČ

Seriously, you guys, read this book.

CinnamonGirl2

Five stars