Pioneering child-friendly workshops to be launched in Britain
It is hard to get some children inside a library – but a high-street shop selling pirate eye patches or superhero equipment is much more of a draw.
This is the simple principle behind a literacy movement that has taken hold in America, and is coming to Britain.
The novelist and screenwriter Dave Eggers, best known for his 2000 bestseller A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and his publishing house McSweeney’s, has set up a series of enticing drop-in centres in cities across the US to promote writing and reading among children. Now a British team of writers and arts entrepreneurs is to create a version in London, with the backing of Eggers and initial funding from Arts Council England.
The first children’s centre to try his radical approach was established in 2002, in Eggers’s native San Francisco.
Named after its address in the Mission district of the city and guilefully hidden behind a Pirate Supply Store shopfront, “826 Valencia” helps students aged from eight to 18 to develop writing skills in informal workshops. By seducing young patrons with pirate parrots and peg legs, it removed the stigma associated with extra literacy lessons.
The San Francisco store was followed by a Superhero Supply Store in Brooklyn, New York, which sells capes and tins of “anti-matter”. Seattle then took up the challenge, setting up the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Company. The growing network of individual projects is linked through the Once Upon a School website.
Writers behind the London project are to pilot a similar venture in an unused shop for six months, and are seeking a suitable space and further funding.
As in America, the store will be largely staffed by volunteers. Eggers recently attended an open meeting in London and called for public support. Ben Payne, one of the British organising team, was inspired: “He did a call to action that brought together a passionate and excited group of volunteers after the show, all buzzing about how we could make an 826 London centre.” The novelist’s instruction to “follow the weird” is crucial, Payne believes, and he is now looking for an unusual shopfront for the store. Plans for a London centre started in earnest this February, but other writers and community workers have also been keen to copy Eggers’s idea.
A project called First Story has already sent well-known authors such as Zadie Smith into schools. Writer Kate Waldegrave, who co-founded First Story, said she believed there is a better tradition of “educational charitable enterprise” in America. “That’s a bit of a shame about England, but I think it is changing.”
In Ireland the novelist Roddy Doyle has established a writing centre in north Dublin called Fighting Words.