It may seem like eons until July 21, when the seventh and purportedly the last, Harry Potter book comes out. In the meantime Dana Sheridan, the new education and outreach coordinator for the Cotsen Children’s Library at Princeton University, has come up with a way to distract you — at least for a day. As she pondered the theme for the library’s first annual hands-on event for children, Princyclopedia, Harry Potter was the obvious choice.

Sheridan didn’t have to convince anyone of the wisdom of her selection, and soon volunteers were chasing her down with offers to run tables at the event. “Harry Potter is such a rich topic,” she says. “You can apply lots of arts, sciences, and humanities to it, and it’s a very popular book — with children, teens, and adults; it’s almost universally known.” Then she modestly adds, “And I happen to look stunning in a wizard hat.”

Princyclopedia, a free event, takes place on Saturday, March 31, at Dillon Gym on the Princeton campus. The bulk of activities are designed for ages 4 to 14, but Sheridan assures that it is an all-family event.

When Sheridan came to town, she quickly decided that with the excellent and diverse programming of the children’s department of Princeton Public Library, competition was not the way to go. So she assessed existing children’s programs — “I wanted to supplement rather than replicate” — and devised two outreach thrusts for the Cotsen library, which houses five centuries of children’s literature: Princyclopedia and a “trunk program” in the schools, based on the collection.

Princyclopedia grew out of similarly formatted programs Sheridan already had done — picking a topic or theme and designing an interactive “convention” or science fair around it. In Virginia, for example, she coordinated an event where all the subject matter revolved around the skies — from skydivers and wind energy to bees, solar energy, and radio-controlled airplanes.

But for the Cotsen Library Sheridan needed a topic that meshed with its mission, which includes promoting a love of literacy and the Cotsen collections. She decided that each year they would select a book and design an interactive convention around it, with tables offering some combination of a demonstration, a hands-on project, and “something cool to take home.” This year the 30 tables will represent either Hogwarts classes or wizard shops. (For the whole list, visit www.princeton.edu/princyclopedia).

To garner table sponsors Sheridan first approached stores and university departments, but then, she says, “the event just exploded.” Table sponsors expanded to include university students and clubs as well as local nonprofits. Where necessary, Sheridan would suggest how different groups and organizations could match their own character to what she was looking for at Princyclopedia, but, she adds, “some already knew flat out.” For example, Whole Foods knew immediately that they wanted to do Honeydukes, the sweet shop.

Everyone staffing or volunteering at a Princyclopedia table must dress in wizard garb, and the first 222 kids who come dressed in the Hogwarts style will get a special prize. But if your wizard wear is at the dry cleaners, no problem — you can make robes and hats at the event, with the help of the robe shop run by ICI Fashion for Children and the hat shop run by Red Green Blue.

When participants enter Dillon Gym, which has room for 2,000 Harry wannabes, they will receive a marauder’s map, like the one Harry uses to find secret passages.

The Arts Council of Princeton will run Ollivanders, where participants can make their own magic wands, including spells dripping off the ends.

Princeton Public Library will, naturally, have a wizardry bookshop — Flourish and Blotts.

The university’s Charter Club will host a display of ancient runes, with a children’s activity carving runes of their own.

Kathryn Wagner from Princeton’s chemistry department has a team of 10 students putting together potions. “Potions do weird things — they change colors, bubble, foam, and freeze time,” says Sheridan. In real life, that’s chemistry. “The things you can create through mixing chemicals and looking at different reactions is probably the closest we can come to doing potions on our own.”

Whole Foods will run a sweet store, Honeydukes.

Farrington’s music will provide voice-altering equipment so kids can see what they might sound like as a troll or pixie.

The Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials will be doing charms, which Sheridan describes as “magic spells not related to potions.” For example, charms include shields that characters would throw up to protect themselves, levitation charms, and a bubblehead charm to enable swimming underwater.

The Raptor Trust is bringing owls from its shelters to do a live owl show, an allusion to the owls in the Harry Potter books that serve as “carrier pigeons.”

The toy store Jazams will sponsor Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, a practical joke shop run by the Weasley twins. The table will also offer magic tricks. “Nothing is for sale at the event,” Sheridan assures potential visitors. “It is all free, with no money involved.”

Some Princeton students approached her with ideas. One student-run table will be based on Hogwarts’ Defense Against the Dark Arts class, but it will stay pretty far from the darker side of the Harry Potter books and characters like Snape, Draco Malfoy, and Voldemort. It will involve “learning about critters and curses with face paint and stickers that say, ‘I got hexed today.’” While the topic may teeter on the mature side, it is essential to Harry Potter. And since the event is slated for ages 4 to 14, Sheridan says, “I take the responsibility seriously that parents know they can trust me to have something appropriate. We keep things like this G-rated.” She is also staying away from sorting kids into different houses at Hogwarts, because the kind of competitiveness this breeds can get taken too far.

When she’s not planning Princyclopedia Sheridan is taking her highly interactive trunk shows to schools within a 10-mile radius of the university. The three 45-minute trunk programs, for kindergarten through third-grade classrooms, focus on Beatrix Potter, colonial classrooms, and detective work.

The colonial program is the most popular, says Sheridan, who open with a brief history lesson, using a little map to show areas of settlement. Then it’s straight to a schoolroom in the Middle colonies. Sheridan dons her three-cornered hat and glasses, dressed as a male school master (there were few women teachers at that time, she says).

In the trunk she has facsimiles of a copybook from 1776 as well as colonial writing blanks from the collection (these are big sheets of paper on which students would put their best work; many were ornate and illustrated and became family heirlooms.) Each child receives both a copybook and a writing blank to take home.

Then Sheridan launches into a typical school day, which might have included, depending on the location of the school, writing in a copybook, a blab session (recitation from a sitting position), and toeing the crack (recitation standing, with toes lined up on a crack in the schoolroom floor).

Sheridan has already visited about 65 classrooms in her first year at Cotsen’s.

The Cotsen collection is named for Lloyd Cotsen, a Princeton alumnus, who donated his collection of children’s books that spans five centuries and 40 languages.

Sheridan grew up in Virginia, near Washington, D.C., where her father was a naval architect with his own consulting firm, and her mother was his personal assistant. For college, her parents encouraged her to follow in her brother’s footsteps and go to Virginia Tech (that is, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University) in Blacksburg. Of course, her brother wanted to be an engineer, and she ended up in Interdisciplinary Studies, a liberal arts degree, with three minors: biology, psychology, and English.

After college, she worked at “this and that” in Richmond for two years and then applied to graduate school at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She started with a master’s degree focusing on how children learn in different ways and continued through a doctorate on how children learn in informal learning environments — nonschool venues like children’s and traditional museums.

Her research was based at the Virginia Discovery Museum, where she worked on and off as public programs coordinator and consultant for several years; she explored how children learn in children’s museums over repeated visits.

Also while in graduate school, Sheridan developed programs for other museums and the Park Service and for a year ran an after-school program for kindergarten through third grade children at the Charlottesville Catholic School.

After seven years in Charlottesville, she worked for eight months at a brain injury center, where a friend spied the Cotsen library job and told her about it. She thought the job sounded “cool,” but worried that they might need a librarian. “Luckily my hobby is to read children’s and juvenile fiction,” she says, “so I had a pretty good grasp of the field.” The day of Princyclopedia will be the one-year anniversary of her arrival in Princeton.

Princyclopedia 2007: Harry Potter, Saturday, March 31, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Cotsen Children’s Library, Dillon Gym, Princeton University. Convention-style tables feature hands-on projects and demos. Prizes for the first 222 kids dressed in wizard togs. Free admission. Free parking in Lot 7. For information about handicap access, contact Dana Sheridan at 609-258-2697 or E-mail danas@princeton.edu.

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