By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Welcome to Monkey Village. Population: lots of monkeys.
Monkey Village is a country that you have never heard of. It has its own flag and its own laws. The flag has monkeys on it, and the laws boil down to this: “Everything in there is wiggly. Except the monkeys.” The law was written by Adriel Navarro, Monkey Village’s creator, an 8-year-old boy who attends Broadway Elementary in Venice. Adriel has also created cartoon heroes you have never heard of, “The Heartanator” and “Pencil Boy.”
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Adriel is announcing his new country in the bustling second-floor idea den that is 826LA, a nonprofit writing and tutoring center tucked into the back of the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) on Venice Boulevard. Scattered around the Pottery Barn–rustic, wood-beamed room — its book-lined walls painted a warm, deep blue — are 14 other kids Adriel’s age, local Latino elementary schoolers scribbling away at their homework, thinking through chess moves, refueling on Red Vines and writing on the room’s sextet of Macintosh G5s.
Monkey Village has competition. Roman Mahagamage, a fourth-grader at Westminster, rules over another country not yet available on any map, the Island of the Dead. Population: Roman, plus lots of sailors and soldiers.
“It’s a faraway place that I love, a place in my head I want to go to and live for the rest of my life,” he explains. “All the soldiers fight against anyone who tries to bother me. They can never lose. Their weapons are superpowered.”
It is only Roman’s second afterschool visit to 826LA, but he plans to keep coming back. “It’s cool here, way better than my old homework club,” he says. “People actually help me here. They actually work with you.” There are four tutors busy advising Roman, Adriel and all the others who have come by 826LA’s daily afternoon drop-in hours to get one-on-one help with their homework. Once that’s completed, they can turn to their imaginations.
They have lots of inspiration. On one of the room’s big oak tables, there’s a treasure chest full of paper scrolls, The Scrolls of Mystery and Imagination, each of which contains a writing prompt. A recent favorite: “Write about how it would be waking up as a mouse.” Jessica, 826LA’s resident 9-year-old poet, who comes by every day after school, has opened a scroll that reads, “Write a poem that begins ‘I Wonder Why,’ ” and is in midcreation at a computer. She’s called her poem “I Know Why” and reads off a few lines:
I wonder why people have different hair I wonder why boys are messy I wonder why there are stop signs I wonder why Adriel likes Hilary Duff I wonder why all kids don’t go to 826 I wonder why homeless people live in the streets I wonder why people crash with their cars I wonder why everybody gets headlights Since 826LA opened its doors in March, the afternoons have never been dull. In these educational dog days of school under-funding and teacher exhaustion, the center’s free educational first aid fills a neighborhood need shared by schools across the city. “Teachers are very excited to hear about this place,” says Pilar Perez, the center’s executive director, key fund-raiser and school outreach maven. “At Westminster, students go to an afterschool program, but it’s 80 kids and one tutor. When they come here, they are so excited they get the extra attention. They come here to finish their homework but always stay longer.” They stay because 826 is a space of genuine possibility, where for a few hours every day, the creative whims and big ideas of young students are the most important things in the world. They are treated more like young writers on the rise than students who need help, and it doesn’t hurt that such big-name authors as Walter Mosley and Jonathan Safran Foer have made appearances at 826 — living writerly evidence of what the kids could become.
The strategy comes in large part from the vision of 826LA founder, writer and McSweeney’s publisher Dave Eggers. The unassuming, philanthropic Wizard behind the Oz of American literary hipsterville, Eggers opened the first 826 center, in San Francisco’s Mission District in 2002, and Brooklyn’s 826NYC followed soon after. The idea for an L.A. spawn came up at a dinner following last year’s L.A.TimesBook Festival, during a conversation between Eggers, Perez, E.T.screenwriter Melissa Mathieson, the novelist Vendela Vida and L.A.Weekly’sJoshuah Bearman.
After Eggers’ 2000 debut memoir, AHeartbreakingWorkofStaggeringGenius,crowned him the new century’s first literary wunderkind, he could have easily become a fame-addicted, egocentric monster. Instead, he opened up a tutoring center to help kids in under-served public schools with their writing skills. A trip to Monkey Village would have seemed more plausible.
“When the book was successful, it took everyone off-guard,” says Eggers, who also founded the quirky literary journal TimothyMcSweeney’sQuarterlyConcern,TheBelievermagazine and the McSweeney’s publishing imprint?. “My siblings and I had a family meeting to figure out what we were gonna do with the money, and our first thing was it was going to go to cancer research and hospice centers. That’s where we put all the big chunks at the beginning. After that, the idea for 826 started coming about.”