A cow that is also a cucumber…

First published on October 2011.

‘I have yet to meet the person who is against children’s literacy, or who feels that helping kids to write is a waste of an hour; the scale of the problem is shrunk, temporarily at least, to the size of one small human, somebody sitting right opposite you and thoroughly enjoying what he or she is doing.’

Nick Hornby, Co-Founder, Ministry of Stories opening, November 2010

MoS emerged as an idea from the need to augment teachers’ work in the classroom. As founders, we were inspired by 826 Valencia in San Francisco. Told by teachers in San Francisco that what young people who wanted help with their writing really needed was one-to-one attention, the novelist Dave Eggers set out to prove that there would be enough people within his local community willing to help out. Having found a space at 826, Valencia Street, he was told that it was zoned for retail, so it had to sell something. To get around this obstacle, he created it as a shop for pirates, selling everything that they might need from false eyeballs to replacement peg-legs. A decade later, and there are eight similar centres across the US – including a superhero supply store in Brooklyn and a time-traveller mart in Los Angeles. All are designed as a community resource and to make writing fun.

We aim to inspire a nation of young storytellers. We provide free writing workshops for young people aged 8-18, based on one-to-one mentoring. Our mentors are trained volunteers, a diverse group of writers, those working with writing, teachers, designers and local people. Our work takes place behind the mysterious shop front of Hoxton Street Monster Supplies, the only store to cater to the everyday needs of every imaginable kind of monster.

We see our relationship with the formal education sector as a partnership. We are not trying to replace teachers’ work, but to complement it. Whilst education and media campaigns often focus on standards of literacy, Jonathan Douglas, Director of the National Literacy Trust, has argued that there is a tendency for these to concentrate too much on skills. He maintains that children at the point of transition between primary and secondary school (when many begin to fall behind in reading and writing) are usually simultaneously renegotiating their own identities with parents, siblings, friends, teachers and the wider community. Literacy has to be seen in this wider context. In this, it seems, the child’s own story and its ability to tell it becomes central.

Being open only a year, what we’ve learnt from this work is obviously provisional. However, from a one-off workshop in which a primary school class arrives with nothing but their imaginations and leaves two hours later with an original published story that they have all written, to a holiday project in which young people write, edit and sell their own newspaper in the local market, our evaluation has shown that both teachers and young people respond positively to the challenge of writing towards a finished product; of having the freedom to pursue their own ideas; of being able to work for adults who are passionate about writing and good at listening. As one teacher commented about a primary school session:

‘I think (it) really helped those children who struggled with confidence when it came to writing. They were able to produce something really special that they were proud of and helped them to realise they are all good writers.’

We chose to be in Hoxton to give ourselves the best chance of recruiting enough skilled volunteers to help us. Shoreditch has both a high density of people working in the creative industries and is a developing hub for the new digital economy – but it is also home to over 30,000 children, 75% of whom come from low-income families. Our original aim with MoS had been to put together the creative people with the time and talents to help with those local young people who might benefit most: two communities that co-exist but rarely connect.

But we’ve discovered that the benefit works both ways. Being required to draw a cowcumber (a cow that is also a cucumber, obviously) or a monster with 100 legs, but only eight knees, is often just the shot of ‘creative caffeine’ a volunteer illustrator needs to face the rest of their working day. Similarly, selling tins of fear and breath mints for zombies may be a peculiar way of spending ours, but it has shown us that regeneration is not just about buildings and infrastructure but about human interaction too.

Young people who visit MoS don’t always write about monsters. Whether they do or not, we think that they are often writing about themselves. We’re interested in what they have to say about the world and believe that writing your own story may be the best first step in finding your way in it.

Creative Commons LicenceCreativity Money Love: Learning for the 21st Century by Creative & Cultural Skills is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Illustrations by Paul Davis - http://copyrightdavis.blogspot.com/