Do-It-Yourself Tween Rock Star Birthday Party

Rock star-themed paper goods helped complete the look.

One of the most viewed West of the Loop posts ever is this one about Zuzu’s 7th birthday party which was a DIY American Girl Doll party. Remember? That was the party where I made tiny doll-sized food. I’ll admit that that was a little hard-core. The truth is, I love doing Zuzu’s birthday parties at home. For all their sassy back talk and begging for their own phones, tween girls are surprisingly easy to please. They want to feel like big kids but they are still young enough to be fairly uninhibited. They worship teenagers and they are still naive enough to think an Edible Arrangement is the height of elegance. Keep these things in mind, and you can plan a wildly successful tween party for not a lot of money.

In the past few months, Zuzu has gotten really into listening to pop music. I remember eight as the age when I started listening to Top 40 radio myself. Back then it was Q107 — DC’s long-lost Top 40 station. Zuzu, of course, likes to listen to Pandora Internet radio on her iPod Touch and download her favorite songs. (I, on the other hand, had to tape songs off the radio, often during Casey Casem’s weekly Countdown, when I was eight.) Somewhere between Zuzu’s passion for the latest Top 40 hits and her fervent desire to get a feather hair extension, I came up with the idea for a Rock Star birthday party. Zuzu was ecstatic and I began to plan in earnest. We sent out invitations that instructed Zuzu’s friends to get ready to party like a rock star and to come attired in what we called “pop star chic.”

When you are planning a DIY tween birthday party and you want to keep costs down, the first thing you should do is figure out what you can hire a teenager to do. Teenagers are a cheap source of labor and add instant coolness to your party. Obviously, try to find one that actually likes kids and will show up when they say they will. I hired one of the counselors from Zuzu’s summer camp — a high school student from our congregation, who is a serious dancer — to teach the girls a dance routine as the first party activity. For $30 plus tip, Drew warmed the girls up and taught them a very age-appropriate routine in my living room. A few of the girls were shy and hung back, but most were very into the dance routine and when they all started singing along to the Ke$ha and Beyoncé songs on Drew’s iPod, I knew I had picked the right party theme. Most importantly, the first 45 minutes of the party passed without incident.

Drew gets ready to teach the girls the dance routine in my empty living room.

After the dance routine, the girls were hot and tired, so we went right into the food and drink part of the party. I purposefully scheduled the party from 2 to 4 pm so I wouldn’t have to feed the girls a meal. (If you learn nothing else from this post, learn that.) I made a punch with fruit juice and Sprite that was outrageously pink in color and that we dubbed it “Pop Star Punch.” A lot of successful kid party-throwing is marketing. I also filled margarita glasses with colorful candies like Mike and Ike’s, Swedish Fish and Skittles and placed them on the table. The girls loved the sort of Willy Wonka effect and the table did look quite festive for very little money. I had found “rock star” themed paper goods on clearance on a party website, so that added to the ambiance. I even caved and ordered an Edible Arrangement for the girls to snack on because Zoe thinks those things are the coolest. (That was one of the most expensive items at the party and I only got it because I knew that if my dad had been alive and heard me balking at spending $50 on an Edible Arrangement for his beloved Zuzu, he would have ordered one himself. So I thought of it as a present from him and I told Zuzu so.)

But the real pièce de resistance was the guitar birthday cake. For those of you in the Chicago area, I highly recommend ordering a cake from Chef Jen Giovingo of Pastries So Tasty. Jen does all custom work and her cakes taste as good as they look. (I know this because when moms taste the cakes at my kids’ parties, they end up ordering their kids’ cakes from Jen too.) She’s a delight to work with and she even delivers. Jen’s prices are really reasonable in my opinion. The amazing (and huge) cake cost $60, including delivery.

After cake and punch and way too much candy, the girls were ready to move onto the next thing, which was karaoke. It costs at least $100 to rent a real karaoke machine and for these 8 year olds, who have no experience with drunken bar karaoke — and nor do I — the real thing is overkill. Instead, I borrowed a kiddie “karaoke machine” — which is basically a glorified boom box with a microphone — from a friend. We burned a CD with some of Zuzu’s favorite, crowd-pleasing songs — think Katy Perry, Taio Cruz and more Ke$ha — and I printed out the lyrics to all the songs from the Internet. Boom. Instant karaoke. The girls all took turns singing alone and in groups and they danced along. It was pretty adorable. No one seemed offended by the lack of a real karaoke machine with a screen.

Guitar cake!

Goody bags were pretty simple: Pop Rocks (get it?), some temporary tattoos and a little “rock star” notebook. (Had I thought of it, I could’ve burned a copy of the karaoke CD for each girl and then their parents would have egged my house for exposing their daughters to such inappropriate lyrics: “Mommy, what’s a ‘bottle of Jack?'”.) I’m quite sure I brought the whole party in for under $250 and if I hadn’t sprung for the Edible Arrangement, it would have been under $200.

But most importantly, Zuzu loved every minute of her rock star party and I think her friends did as well. Thank goodness that 8 year olds are still an easy mark. I shudder to think what the 9 year old party will be. But I will say this: one of these years I plan to shamelessly rip off my friend Lisa’s amazing 12 year old birthday party: a scavenger hunt in a shopping mall in which each team was armed only with a bag of quarters and tasked with finding an absurd list of required items — examples: a Polaroid picture of the cutest boy you could find and something an Eskimo would like. No one planned birthday parties like Lisa’s dad. Mr. D, you’re still my party-planning idol.


  1. Denise Terry says

    I was remembering the cool birthday parties that sprung up in the class of 1992!! So creative and fun!

  2. Jill says

    Sounds like a pretty great party! I’m always impressed with your creativity. I remember you telling me about your friend’s dad around the time you were planning Zuzu’s Olympic birthday. I think you might be the “Lisa’s Dad” of all my friends.

    I just need a bigger house so I can copy your ideas.

  3. Lisa says

    Tons of great ideas, and I’m just a few weeks away from planning Ellie’s #11 (how is she possibly 11??!!). We have done a mix of big $ (Ellie was fascinated after a friend’s wedding, so for her 8th, we had a mehndi artist come for 16 girls — crazy!) and home spun fun, but I think our highpoint was David’s Pancake Olympic party — we created a half-dozen crazy sports activities involving pancakes, including shooting them thru a Fisher Price basketball hoop and flipping & catching them in a crazy relay. Pancakes were D’s favorite food, so I think the idea popped up one night after 2 glasses of wine, then we couldn’t let it go! I will be calling Jen for a cake and work backwards from there!

    • Emily says

      Lisa, the pancake thing is exactly like something Mr. D would have come up with. For eleven year olds, I think a scavenger hunt sounds perfect….

  4. Jenn in South Florida says

    I’m so jealous that you could have your child’s party from 2-4 and only serve beverages and snacks.

    But I live in South Florida which has a very Latin and Jewish culture (both cultures are surprisingly similar). And not having a meal at a birthday party is considered a HUGE faux pas. Even at birthday parties for very small children, you are still expected to have a meal for all guests. Also, nobody down here has 2 hour parties. That’s unheard of. Except only when you are having it at a rented place like a children’s museum or a Gymboree which have time requirements. But at a park or home, kids birthdays last at least 4 hours and usually more. Most children’s parties here usually start early afternoon (like 2pm) and end between 7-10 pm. So for a Mom and Dad to throw a 2-hour snack party they will only end up looking very cheap and very awkward.

    But it must be nice to have that option and cut down on costs. For my kids’ parties, I will usually have pasta with rolls and salad or a taco bar where guests can fix their own hard-shell and soft-shell tacos along with topping and sides such as sour cream and Pico de Gallo. Both meals are easy, inexpensive and yummy. Especially if you buy all of your ingredients at Costco, Bj’s or Sam’s Club. Pizza is another option but you would have to find a discount/budget pizzeria because the national pizza chains are too pricey.

    I would love to have a 2-hour snacks-only party but that just isn’t considered appropriate in some areas of our country and I happen to live in one such area. It wouldn’t go over well with guests and nobody I know has ever done this. Maybe I could rebel and start a trend? LOL

    • Emily says

      Wow, that is so much pressure! I can’t imagine having to throw such a big party. Do people do that every year?