I steeled myself yesterday for a heavy morning at Ministry of Stories, volunteering as a writing mentor for 8-year-old inner city kids in Hoxton, the southern end of Hackney that almost meets the City. I needn’t have bothered; the children of Whitmore School were wonderful.
Ministry of Stories follows in the same mould as San Francisco’s 826 Valencia Pirate Store and New York’s 826 Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. The stores subsidise writing and homework projects for local children where a team, mainly comprised of volunteers, helps with reading and writing. Writer Dave Eggers is the man behind the pioneering 826 movement in the US.
London’s version, started with the help of author Nick Hornby, focuses firmly on writing stories. A couple of minutes along Hoxton Street from the main Monster Supplies building, the new ’embassy’ of the Children’s Republic of Shoreditch offers visiting kids the opportunity to shape a part of the area that belongs firmly to them.
Sitting down at the ‘writer in residence’ position at the back of the embassy, I watched as a machine – that sounded suspiciously like one of the other volunteers – periodically ejected pictures of treasure that Whitmore pupils had described to it. Quite a technological feat.
But I didn’t have to wait long till the little stool on the other side of the desk was occupied by a budding writer. I helped him write a story about a midnight vampire fight that ended in a bloodbath and untimely death. “Yuk! That’s horrible,” I clowned, only half joking.
The next story saw the writer bump into the Queen, who was naturally doing her Christmas Shopping in a corner shop in Hoxton. They got to know each other, became best friends and shared a delicious chocolate cake at the Palace.
“The Poisonous Snake” was a chilling story of a failed reptile attack in Shoreditch Park. But fear not: the snake in question was so tired after its exertions attacking local girls that it promptly ceased its wriggling and died. “The Vampire of New North Road” was the next work; even in 2012 this old fantasy of blood-sucking monsters still exerts a powerful hold on the imagination.
The biggest surprise though was back at Monster Supplies when we asked the children to suggest a new department for the Republic. The first suggestion, for there to be lots of Xboxes, was fairly predictable. It’s what 8-year-olds like, right? But the shrieks and of enthusiasm that greeted the next suggestion were not. “The Department of Vegetables” one little boy had shouted fiercely. Because? “Sugar is bad for you. Vegetables help you grow big and strong.”
A secret vote – “Eyes shut, then put your hand up” – confirmed the pull of the vegetable for this particular class and the success, at their life stage, of healthy eating messages. When they opened their eyes and the result was read out, the roof almost came off.
Decision made, we mentors sat down with our excited charges to write out the job descriptions for posts that this new department would need, like weeders and waterers and veggie vendors. Charm, enthusiasm, manners – and a love of fresh food. The kids are alright.
Ministry of Stories are always looking for new recruits. Contact them here, get CRB’d – and get on board!