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.
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.
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.