Behind the walls of the tiny, not-so-serious Greenwood Space Travel Supply Company in Seattle, seriously amazing stories are coming to life. A future National Book or Newberry Award winner may be coming to life here, too. She might even be my own daughter, Madeleine, who's 13. Every child who walks through the black cylindrical "teleporter" door at the back of the supply store and into the world of 826 Seattle is treated like a great writer, a writer worthy of high praise and deserving of special attention.
Last summer, Maddy walked through the teleporter to participate in the "Tabloid Tales" writer's workshop at 826.
Inside this bustling nonprofit writing and tutoring center, kids get hooked on writing precisely because there are no hooks. There are no grades here, no pressure to write when the words just won't come, no need for writers to prove anything to anyone but themselves.
Instead, what the young people who come to 826 get is a big dose of inspiration in the form of zany and well-planned workshops and programs. They get an even bigger dose of encouragement from an army of talented volunteer authors, editors, teachers, artists and other veterans of the written word. These caring adults share a single mission: to infuse a love of writing in children and thus fan the fire of creativity and leadership in each one.
"We want kids to get into the spirit of writing and be inspired to write their stories," says author and educator Teri Hein, the tireless executive director of 826 Seattle.
Kevin P. Casey
Madeline Bond can't help but smile as she shares her writing with a fellow 826 student.
826 Seattle is a chapter of 826 National, a nonprofit organization created by author and philanthropist Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius). The others are in San Francisco, where the founding chapter is located; Boston; Brooklyn; Chicago; Los Angeles; and Ann Arbor.
Each chapter publishes youth writing, creating beautifully designed tomes that sell on Amazon.com and support the programs. Kids are involved in every aspect of publishing, from writing to editing to designing the book covers. The Seattle chapter published five books of essays, short stories and other writing from students ages 6 to 18 during the 2007-8 school year and is on course to do the same in the 2008-09 school year.
While Hein can convince just about anyone of her program's worth, the 826 Seattle Web site sums it up best: "We believe that, in our culture, the ability to express oneself in writing opens large doors. Our many different programs are designed to do just that – give young people a head start into their futures by helping them improve their written communication skills.
"We're here to support young people who are confident about their writing abilities; we're here to motivate young people who are tentative about writing; and we're here for those who need help with the most basic writing skills, including English language learning. We believe the world is made better by good literature, persuasive letters to the editor, and well-written job applications. At 826 Seattle, we are committed to helping young people acquire the skills they need to write well throughout their lives."
The adults at 826, many of whom are published or aspiring writers, themselves, approach students with great respect and something like faith. As volunteers and staff members, they believe that any child in their midst could be the next literary legend if nurtured well.
Throughout the three-day "Tabloid Tales" workshop, instructors Jared Leising and Eric Goldhammer purposefully refrained from critiquing mistakes in grammar or syntax. They instead praised the creative efforts of the 12 kids around the table. Leising, an instructor at Cascadia Community College, and Goldhammer, a teacher at Mount Si High School, have led several workshops at 826 and recently started a group to help support teachers figure out ways to inspire kids to write.
During the session, the two enthusiastically called out well-written sentences and applauded great use of detail.
"Listen to this," Goldhammer sings. "‘My name is Boris. I am a man. I am a man, but more importantly, I am a dentist.' … That's a terrific lead!" Anna, an 11-year-old attending an 826 workshop for the first time, smiles with pride. (At 826 Seattle's request, Seattle's Child is only publishing the first names of workshop participants.)
Then, as kids spilled out across the L-shaped, space-themed writing center to continue their stories, Leising and Goldhammer began to circulate. They gently offered advice to each student on how to make good stories better. Crouched next to my seventh-grader, Leising was enthusiastic about her use of dialect, giving pointers on how to make it feel real in dialogue. Later Goldhammer stooped close to offer more ideas.
It worked. As I read Maddy's "Tabloid Tales" story about a backwoods farmer shooting down an alien, I was wowed. Did I know my daughter could write like that?
"You and Dad never read my stories, you just correct them. It's worse than grading," my daughter said. "I liked that they just focused on the story." I had never considered how being raised in a house with scrupulous writer-editor parents might hamper my child's inner writer.
Lucy, age 12, said she has the same problem at school: "This place is not like being at school. It's not as strict, and it's easy to take a break from things – there's no teacher telling you have to get back to it in, like, two minutes. You can take your time and let a story come."
"The teachers were really connecting with us and really helping us," Anna adds. "They gave us ideas, things to think about. In the end, I thought my story was even better."
As teachers normally bound to grading and assessing student writing, both Leising and Goldhammer say 826 Seattle also gives them a place to remember the joy of writing for the sake of writing.
"There's a lot of payoff here," says Leising. "There's more excitement, less burn-out. What I learn here I take back to my classes." 826 gives both teachers a chance to try out new techniques and approaches to school-based course work.
Nearly 4,000 students have walked through the teleporter to participate in writing workshops, book-making field trips, school-based publishing and after-school programs since the Seattle chapter opened in 2005. With those students have come an equal number of stories, the titles of which would fit in on any children's bookshop shelf: The Doors of Doom, Billy and the Underground Bug, The Corndog King and The Case of the Freakish Monsters, to name a few.
The organization has more than 350 active volunteers with more than 900 volunteer applications. All programs are free to children and schools. In fact, the sign-up sheet for teachers to take their kids to 826 Seattle for a special writing field trip goes up in August and is filled before school even starts. The organization serves children from diverse backgrounds, and its programs for immigrant children are growing in popularity. A group of English language learners took their stories of immigration and "translated" them into a bus stop mural last summer.
Space Supply Store?
You may still be wondering one thing: What does a space supply store have to do with writing? Each 826 chapter has a storefront with a different theme to draw kids in. 826 New York, for example, has a storefront with a super hero supply theme – particularly hot when super hero films are released. The décor of the writing center on the other side of the storefront is designed to look more library-like with a few crazy twists to intrigue kids and gives the space a "club-like" atmosphere, according to Hein.
Inside 826 Seattle, the walls are spaceship or submarine gray and fatigue green with round portal window facades and globe lights. Four clocks cover one wall side by side. They show the time in Lake City, Greenwood, Rainier Beach and West Seattle. A poster-size quote greets visitors: "If you are embarking to into space, you have come to the right place." A southwestern wall has been dubbed Paul's Wall to commemorate the 175,392 volunteer hours put in by Paul Hughes at the time of the dedication.
Poking out of every nook and cranny are books, pencils, paper, computers and the kind of writer resources professional writers keep on their desks: the AP Style Guide, Shrunk & White, a thesaurus, a dictionary and countless other writing reference works.
Osa, a 10-year-old "Tabloid Tales" participant, sums up the success of the 826 approach:
"It's just a fun place," Osa says. "You can't help but want to write here."
Excerpt from an 826 Alumna
The day we gots into all the trouble, I did not gets to work. But there was a reason, see. Them annual duck hunt’n season is a come’n up, again. So I gots up real early, even before them rooster crowed me awake. Curse them blasted rooster.
I turned over in bed and shook me good wife Mary Jane awake too and says: “Jannie I’m hungry. Would you be making them famous pancakes of your’n this morn?”
She looks at me with her eyes real squinty like cuz of them thar sunlight. Five months ago she would have told me to get me lazy bum out of bed and cook me own darn pancakes.
But that was before I caught the kitchen afire. In ‘bout 30 minutes I gots me some perty pancakes sit’n in front of me. I eats ’em up real fast . . .
– From the storyRedneck Shoots Down Alien Spaceship,by Maddy J. Bond, "Tabloid Tales" Writer’s Workshop
Cheryl Murfin is a Seattle writer and mother of two.