ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
NPR's Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr paid a visit.
JEFFREY FREYMANN: Past mannequins wearing the latest in crime-fighting attire, tucked behind a hidden door, you'll find the secret headquarters of 826NYC, a mild-mannered non-profit organization that helps kids with creative writing. There's a spacious room filled with bookshelves, couches and tables giving kids from elementary to high school age an inviting place to write and do homework. Classes also come in for fieldtrips, and volunteer Katey Parker says, going through the store into the reading room gets kids in the mood to be creative.
KATEY PARKER: I think, when you walk into that space, your imagination just kind of explodes. You know, everything seems possible when you're walking through a superhero supply store. And they don't really have time to sit there and think about everything and decide whether it's real or not. So by the time they come back here, anything seems possible.
FREYMANN: There are 826 organizations in seven U.S. cities. They got their name from the street address of the first center started by writer Dave Eggers at 826 Valencia in San Francisco. Each has a whimsical storefront. In Seattle, there's a space travel theme, Chicago's is a top-secret spy store. With a small staff and an army of volunteers, they offer totally free informal tutoring and help with homework.
GEORGE SAUNDERS: The great thing is a kid can walk in there thinking, oh, I'm going to a reading tutorial, and suddenly, you're in a place where gravity is sold in cans, and you can buy tights and a cape, which I just bought for myself.
FREYMANN: Writer George Saunders was one of 23 authors who contributed to a short-story anthology called "The Book of Other People." It was edited by Zadie Smith, and benefited 826NYC.
SAUNDERS: In a time when, you know, everyone is bemoaning the decline in literacy, 826 is an incredibly innovative, energetic way to say to kids that language is power.
FREYMANN: The 826 sites regularly host school fieldtrips. One recent morning, 19 third-graders from P.S. 250 in Williamsburg were welcomed into the Superhero Supply Store, then taken two-by-two through a secret doorway into the reading space.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)
FREYMANN: First things first, each student dons a pair of Clark Kent-style glasses for an official author photo. The photos are taken, name tags made, and then they all sit on a rug at the far end of the room, facing storyteller, Katey Parker. She tells them that all of the employees of the Mildew Publishing Company are in a predicament.
PARKER: Unidentified Child: Yeah.
PARKER: He's our boss. And he makes us write a story. But today, we were supposed (unintelligible) have a really nice time to write a story. And then last night, right before we all went home, he came on the intercom and he goes, you guys got to give me 19 original stories by tomorrow at 12:30 or you're all fired.
FREYMANN: It's quickly decided that the kids will help the employees get those 19 stories written.
PARKER: Unidentified Boy #1: We need a character.
PARKER: Characters, yes, yes...
FREYMANN: They come up with a list of what you need to tell a story before Mr. Mildew, over an intercom, interrupts them.
PARKER: We need characters, we need a setting, we need a...
PARKER: Yes, Mr. Mildew?
MILDEW: I think we have some new employees today.
MILDEW: Well, I hope they would (unintelligible), because I need my stories by 12:30. Do you understand?
PARKER: Yes, Mr. Mildew. Okay, all right. So let's come up with a main character. Who has...
FREYMANN: While one 826 volunteer provides illustrations on a sketchpad and easel, another transcribes the work in progress on a computer, and it's projected onto a screen in the front of the room.
PARKER: Unidentified Child #1: Yeah, but they're...
PARKER: Now, do they live with their parents or do they live alone?
SIEGEL: I don't...
FREYMANN: Unidentified Girl #1: Tony had telekinesis.
PARKER: Unidentified Child #3: Yeah, a guy who can read mind.
PARKER: Do you think you can use mind to move things...
FREYMANN: Ashley is also telekinetic, which comes in handy when Henry the butler decides he is going to steal money from their safe in the mansion's basement. The story progresses to a cliffhanger moment - Tony and Ashley have levitated Jerry the fish, terrifying the butler, and the police are on their way. But how will the twins explain the situation without giving away the secret of their super powers? That's for each of the students to decide.
PARKER: So if everybody comes up with their own original ending, there's a chance that Mr. Mildew will let us keep our jobs. Okay, guys (unintelligible) few tables.
FREYMANN: The students start busily writing and illustrating their own conclusion to the story. Their teacher, Dona Geren Daisy(ph), says she jump at the chance to bring her students here.
DONA GEREN DAISY: Sometimes with our curriculum, you have to kind of be a little bit more structured. Like it doesn't really give room for super heroes to come in. So, that's why it needed to be a outlet for them to kind of go, telekinetic, this, that, I knew that was going to happen.
FREYMANN: And Kathy Parker says that almost always happens.
PARKER: Even classes that start out kind of subdued will usually really burst out at some point during this particular workshop, and just get crazy and creative. And it's inspiring for us.
FREYMANN: Then the stories are gathered up and taken down stairs where the publisher, Mr. Mildew, will decide whether each story is approved or not.
MILDEW: Unidentified students: Whoo.
MILDEW: Then Henry said, I will get revenge. A wonderful last line. Approved.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
FREYMANN: Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr, NPR News.
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