In 2007 when 2,000 people showed up for the first Princyclopedia, the free annual event that brings one children’s book to life, it was considered an unqualified success. That year the theme was “Harry Potter,” and the day featured about 30 tables offering some combination of demonstration, hands-on project, and, as its creator, Dana Sheridan, told US 1’s Michele Alperin at the time, “something cool to take home” (U.S. 1, March 28, 2007).

This year Sheridan, who is Education & Outreach Coordinator for Princeton University’s Cotsen Children’s Library, has chosen as the theme book “Robin Hood.” She expects no fewer than 5,000 people to descend on Dillon Gym on the Princeton campus on Saturday, April 14, for the sixth annual Princyclopedia. She had added a new element to the event this year, and one dear to my heart: a food drive to benefit the Crisis Ministry of Princeton and Trenton.

“This is our first year to ask for anything in return,” Sheridan notes. “Every year, when I’m selecting the table topics and working with the various volunteer groups, I try to match what they’re all about — their character — with the elements they’re teasing out of the book.” Groups sponsoring tables include university departments, students, and clubs as well as local nonprofits and stores. “So if it’s, say, the university’s chemistry department, it will be some science-related activity,” she explains. “If it’s the Arts Council, expect a hands-on art project.”

Sheridan was contemplating topics for the Labyrinth Books table this year, when, as she puts it, “I remembered that they are a year-round collection site for the Crisis Ministry and it struck me like a lightning bolt: Robin’s work with the common folk!” She points out that the book is not just about knights and lords and ladies and castles, but about everyday life in medieval times. “And,” she emphasizes, “about the common people. I didn’t want this to be a Renaissance fair. We can actually teach kids to give like Robin did, to help regular people who were overburdened and in need.”

The folks at Labyrinth immediately warmed to the idea. “They are the best partners!” Sheridan says. “When I started to make the connection, I realized that last year we had 5,000 people, so this year if everybody brings just one non-perishable…” she says, wistfully. The nonprofit Crisis Ministry, which assists low-income people in Mercer County, has a “wish list” of foods posted on its website, www.thecrisisministry.org. They include: canned tuna, salmon, chicken, and chili; shelf-stable milk (like Parmalat); peanut butter; hot cereal and small- to medium-size boxes of cold cereal; dry pasta, rice, and beans; canned fruit; and honey. (Attendees who plan to bring a non-perishable or two are advised that low-fructose, low-sodium, and low-sugar foods in general are especially appreciated, and that all cans should be in the 12- to 16-ounce range, with nothing in glass containers.)

As always, there will be activities for children of all ages. Since I plan to bring along a 12-year-old boy, I asked Sheridan to name a few that older kids especially can enjoy. “We’re going to have live hawks and falcons, and lots of weapons,” she begins. The Philadelphia Fight Ensemble, professionals who do stage fighting, will demonstrate their skills using the quarterstaff, swords, and daggers, and will answer questions. “Some kids can even try it themselves,” she adds, by “whopping it up knocking each other off pedestals inside an inflatable.” A Renaissance Faire knight will be on hand, too, whom she describes as “a jouster complete with his and his horse’s armor and his weapons, including battle axes and broadswords.” Of course, there will be castles, and one table devoted to the “lifestyles of the rich and noble,” to include clothing, dresses, and even a copy of, ahem, Medieval Vogue.

Naturally, I inquired about Robin Hood-related food. Whole Foods Princeton will provide samples of venison chili. “I want to emphasize,” Sheridan jokes, “that the venison is FDA approved — no road kill (or forest kill) here.” Olsson’s Fine Foods will provide appropriate cheeses, and there will be “mead” at an ale house. As they have for each Princyclopedia, the folks at Bent Spoon will be serving a custom flavor matching the day’s theme.

A number of tables will focus, appropriately, on forests — their ecology, saving them, and even forest survivalism like that practiced by Robin and his Merry Men. Kids can make their own arrows, and traditional long-bow archery will be demonstrated by the Traditional Archers of New Jersey. “Mostly the event will be a true-blue nod to Robin Hood and everyday life in the Middle Ages,” Sheridan assures.

Along those lines, she has one wish. “At the end of the day, I want to see tables full of food ready to go to families who need it now.”

Princyclopedia 2012: Robin Hood, Dillon Gym, Princeton University. Saturday, April 14, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Free admission; no registration required. Free parking in Lot 7. For information about handicap access, contact Erin Metro at 609-258-5144 or E-mail emetro@princeton.edu.

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