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TPiB: Sugar Skulls for Dia de los Muertos (not as hard as it looks)

Photo from www.MexicanSugarSkull.com – a great resource.
If you’re looking to incorporate some cultural programming with a high fun factor into your program year, I highly recommend trying this out.  Decorating calaveras, or Mexican sugar skulls in honor of Dia de los Muertos, is something I have wanted to share with my teens for several years now, but have been intimidated by how complicated it all seemed.  It appeals to several elements that my teens respond to in programs.  It’s novel, they leave with something, it’s creative, and is uses sugar.  A friend assured me that it was easier than it looked, and so I jumped in and the fifteen teens, ranging from 6th-11th grade all had a fun time.  This is not a holiday any of my teens (or I) celebrate in our own families, but if you or your teens do, all the better to share.

About the holiday:

The region I’m from has a large Mexican American population, but the community in which I work does not.  I think this is a really good reason to explore Dia de los Muertos because these teens will certainly reach beyond the borders of our sleepy suburb and encounter many different kinds of people, and it’s always good to know a little bit about other cultures, regardless of where you live.  Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos, is celebrated on November 2nd.  It’s not about scary skeletons and ghosts.  It’s not Halloween.  It’s a celebration of life and transition and love for those who have died.  The sugar skulls are decorated and exchanged or given as gifts similarly to how Valentines are exchanged.  If you’re not already familiar with the celebration, it’s a good idea to read up on the holiday and traditions associated with it so you can talk about it with your teens.  Here are some useful sources

The plan:

My major road block in running this program before now was finding the blank sugar skulls.  I could find kits and I could find already decorated skulls, but no one sold the blanks (and shipped them for a reasonable price).  With the reassurance of a Spanish teacher friend of mine, I ordered a kit from Teacher’s Discovery (click through the Spanish link).  She was right.  It is easier than it looks.  I viewed a video on making the paste and another on making the blanks, and then easily knocked out about 30 skulls in my kitchen at home the day before the program.  You could make the blanks on site a day or so ahead of time as well and then not have to worry about dropping them all on your way to work.  Next came the royal icing, which I loathe, but sucked it up and did it for the teens.  I made three colors (pink, green, and yellow) which was plenty, and gave each table one set of each color, loaded into ziploc bags that they could use to pipe the color on.   See my post on making gingerbread houses for more on royal icing, but know that using the meringue powder included in the kit makes this way way easier.  Because the kit from Teacher’s Discovery contains all of the decorating supplies too, the only additional materials I needed were:


  • granulated sugar (12 cups)
  • powdered sugar (2 pounds)
  • gel type food coloring (the liquid isn’t saturated enough)
  • cardboard to rest the skulls on 
  • foil
  • scissors
  • extra bottles of glue
  • snack sized zip lock bags
  • cleaning supplies
  • gloves (if you prefer)

Most of this I had on hand, so the total cost of the program is as follows:

$27 Sugar Skull kit
$1.50 powdered sugar
$3 granulated sugar
$3 baggies                  

This produced enough skulls and royal icing for about 30 kids, which puts your cost per person right around $1 each.  Plenty of meringue powder, glitter, foil paper, and sequins remain and could be used in a subsequent program, which means I could run this again next year for only the cost of the sugars.  So if I were to do that, the price per person would be just pennies.  I’m sold.

And wow, can I tell you how amazing it was to buy that kit with all of the little bits all together after all of the programs where I’m scrounging through Michaels and the Dollar Store to get all of the random pieces?  So nice. So so so nice.

I have very good things to say about Teacher’s Discovery too.  What great customer service!  And the kit was top notch too.  The skull making supplies within the kit came from Mexican Sugar Skull, which is widely regarded as a real authority on the process and history and is where I found the useful instruction videos that I watched before making the skulls.  It’s also a good spot to find sample decorating motifs that you can show to the teens for inspiration.

skull3 skull4


Fortuantely, there are lots of great resources out there upon which to draw.  The Mexic-Arte Museum in Austin has a whole curriculum that includes games, activities, and lots of good background and conversation fodder.
I printed out a brief introduction to Dia de los Muertos from the Peabody Museum at Harvard for kids to take home and read.
I also printed up the Pan de Muertos recipe from a curricular resource from Denver Public Schools in case they wanted to get deeper into the traditions at home.
If your group is open to sharing personal details, you could use this as an opportunity to share memories of people in their lives who have died, and if you have display space in your library for teens, you could create a small ofrenda to display the skulls as well as information about the celebration.

Watch out for:

  • You know how it goes. There’s always someone who’s goofing off and wasting supplies.  Add sugar to the mix and it’s a sure thing.  Pre-setting each workspace can help moderate the crazy as there’s less movement around the room.  If  you have the resources, giving each teen a complete set of supplies ensures that you won’t have a frosting hog.
  • Remind the teens that though these are technically edible till you cover them with glue and sequins, they are not supposed to be eaten.  Especially if your library has policies regarding food prepared at home.  This is not food, it is a craft medium.  If the food ban is especially severe, you could replicate the skulls with a flour/salt dough (still technically food but wholly unappealing to the palate) or Crayola Model Magic clay (which would significantly increase the cost).  This would also mean you’d have to make the skulls much further in advance for drying time.
  • Make the skulls far enough in advance that they are completely dry – at least 24 hours ahead.
  • If your teens are on bikes or if they have to leave early, you may want to have a place for them to store their creations till they are fully dry, or advise them to bring something to transport their skull.  A plastic take out container or something like that.
  • I really hope this wouldn’t be a concern, but it’s possible that some community members could be offended at the skull imagery.  If this is the case, go back to the cultural reference links above.

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