SAN FRANCISCO – This was my first pirate store. Amusing because “pirates” is not a subject that often comes up, especially given my role as a scientist looking for unconventional ways to “talk science.” Therefore, to speak of a geneticist (my particular area of expertise) visiting a place of commerce that sells buckles, lard, and eye patches might sound a little absurd – or at least a trifle mysterious. However, I think the staff at the Pirate store would probably prefer to call it creative, because there you have it – the store is actually a front for a centre known as 826 Valencia, one of the homes of a non-profit organization aimed at inspiring the development of writing and literacy skills in young children, particularly with an element of creativity involved.
And at this place, imagination certainly abounds. When you first walk into the pirate store, you feel as if you’ve entered the deep of an old ship, so much so, that you may find yourself a touch unsteady from the phantom movement of phantom waves. Looking around you, you see pirate products of benefit. Sensible things that a pirate might need, like spy glasses, loaded die, and flags. This is not the place to purchase a parrot because there is a good chance that you might be challenged, “where’s the utility in that?” There are also many signs, like “IF DECK IS SALTY THERE WILL BE LASHINGS” or “NO ASKING ‘WHAT KIND OF BIRD IS THAT – THE REAL PRETTY ONE?” which whilst appear to be discouraging in intent, actually lure you in further. This is important, because behind the salty facade is the heartbeat of the operation – a large space designed with a comforting mix of warmth, creativity and eccentricity, a space for writing.
I was there to meet the staff and to explore the mechanics of the literacy center, curious to see if science and environmental literacy could be included in the mix. There were others there as well, about ten in total, who had also made the trip to learn what all the fuss was about. Interestingly, many of them were from Denver, ironic because I would have thought that Denver should have been pretty immune from pirates. To say the least, the center’s stats are very impressive. 826 Valencia has a network of over 1000 volunteers, and the space functions well as an all purpose tutorial center, with their doors open each afternoon, often to as many 50 school children. They come to the pirate place because they know it’s a place where they can find help with their writing, perhaps their long division, or they come because it’s simply a place to socialize in the company of caring attentive adults. As well, 826 Valencia is privy to about 100 fieldtrips each year, essentially engaging over 2000 young writers in this element of their programming.
During the visit, we got to see one of these fieldtrips in action – actually, their most popular one, being a session on “Storytelling and Bookmaking” which is usually presented to 7 to 11 year olds. Here, Jory, their Programs Coordinator, led the group of us through this activity.
“O.K. what do we need in a story? What’s important for a story?” he would query. And we would dutifully mention, “characters.” He would then continue, “What else? What about a setting? Denver? No? What about the character’s greatest wish? The character’s greatest fear? Does the character need a sidekick?” and so on. All the while, this dialogue would generate a flurry of activity from two other workshop staff members: one who was typing down the working text before our very eyes, the page projected on the wall in front of us; and the other who was obviously chosen for her artistic talent, sketching out an image that was impressive by any measure. Best of all, there was also a fourth actor, literally an actor, who played the part of “Mr Blue.” Mr Blue was an angry and critical ambient voice that came from above in the attic. You never actually saw him. More importantly, he was the editor of this entire affair.
NO NO NO! I NEED THE STORY NOW!
DOES IT HAVE CONFLICT? I NEED CONFLICT!
WHAT CHARACTERS DO YOU HAVE? I’M NOT SURE I LIKE THAT CHARACTER!
DID YOU COPY THAT FROM SOMEHWERE? I’M NOT GOING TO PUBLISH STUFF THAT’S BEEN COPIED!
Every so often, Jory would update Mr. Blue on the story that we were creating, and we would hear the curmudgeon bark back his point of view. On occasion, Jory would ask one of us to update on his behalf. I can only imagine what this must be like for a child – scary, yet ultimately empowering, because at the end of it all, the child will get to take home a book where they were part of the creative process, and a book that had passed Mr. Blue’s obviously high standards. Go figure – just like the publishing world.
In any event, the book we produced was interesting to say the least. Our character was a female janitor in need of a leg prosthetic, who worked in a recycling depot, and had also managed to engineer a bicycle out of recycled garbage so that she could go in search of the aforementioned leg. As well, the text was written in such a way as to end in a cliffhanger, with the intent that we (the students) would be able to finish off the story ourselves. The book looked wonderful – the pictures produced were awesome, and the whole aesthetics was just something to marvel at. You got the impression that even something like the font was chosen very carefully.
Later on, I had a chance to talk briefly to Dave Eggers, he of the hip and young bestselling novelist set, and also one of the founders of the literacy center. It was difficult broaching the subject of science at that particular opportunity. Often, I can draw a bit of attention to myself, simply by being a geneticist, but I don’t think I really made much of an impression. What can I say – it’s hard to compete when there are pirates around.
Still, looking back, I’m optimistic about scientific and environmental literacy working in a similar context. After all, the story we produced did have a female janitor in need of a leg prosthetic, who worked in a recycling depot, and had also managed to engineer a bicycle out of recycled garbage so that she could go in search of the leg…