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This article by Michele Alperin was prepared for the March

28, 2007 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Something to Keep You Busy Till Book Seven

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

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


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 opens 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


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


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


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

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