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. Times Book Festival, during a conversation between Eggers, Perez, E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathieson, the novelist Vendela Vida and L.A. Weekly’s Joshuah Bearman.
After Eggers’ 2000 debut memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, 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 Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Believer magazine 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.”
Following the decision to open 826LA in Venice and put the fund-raising wheels in motion, Eggers’ next move was to partner up with Steve Barr’s Green Dot charter high schools: Animo Venice and Animo Inglewood. 826LA would be an on-site tutoring center for neighborhood kids, but its tutors would also work off-site on the two start-up Animo campuses. The Animo students would also be invited to special weekend 826LA workshops, like the center’s inaugural one in March, “How To Make a Skate Video,” led by filmmaker Spike Jonze. On the books for summer: workshops on SAT essay writing and songwriting (with members of Ozomatli).
“Los Angeles has 800,000 students in its school district,” says Eggers. “All you can do is say, ‘We’re gonna start here with this room and the students who are closest to get to it and the tutors who want to come to it.’ We know we are going to help those students that come in after school, so let’s take care of that first. And then you say, we know the Animo schools exist, we can create our first school partnerships with these schools. It’s just steps. You just chip away. Are there are a hundred more steps to take? Absolutely. Every school, every neighborhood should have a free tutoring center. In L.A., there needs to be at least 1,000 centers. But right now, we’re still trying to pay the rent on this one.”
Tutoring is only phase one of the 826 plan. As in San Francisco and Brooklyn,
826LA will also operate as an independent student publishing house, releasing
artfully designed book anthologies of student work (complete with back-cover student
blurbs) as well as single-author student monographs and a McSweeney’s-esque
student lit journal, The 826LA Quarterly. The first 826LA
book, Rhythm of the Chain: Young Writers
Explore Teamwork, is out this month and features contributions
from 42 Animo Inglewood students with an introduction from former Laker coach
Phil Jackson. The book (which Weekly editor Deborah Vankin helped edit)
was actually Jackson’s idea. After hearing about 826Valencia from his ex-wife
(one of that center’s most active tutors), he approached Eggers and Animo Inglewood
about the teamwork project and then held several meetings with the students.
“I’m amazed at the level of work these kids are doing at Animo,” Jackson wrote in an e-mail. “These young students will have the courage and the experience to work towards other projects and hopefully use their experience with teamwork to bring together their communities in the process.”
On a recent hot and sunny Saturday, the student editorial board of Rhythm
of the Chain were all huddled inside 826 to get a lesson on anthologizing
from writer David Ulin. The one male member of the board couldn’t make it, so
it was up to the eight young women who rushed there on the 10 freeway from Jamba
Juice gigs and SAT prep tests to figure out how to organize the book’s 42 pieces,
which now include a 55-page screenplay.
“We’re looking for echoes,” Ulin tells them. “It’s important to find anchors.” With help from their English teacher Annette Gonzalez, the students begin to group the essays thematically, stacking them in piles across a table.
“Are we going with the idea of the Cycle of Life?”
“Should we put the Deaths together?”
“What’s the difference between Unity and Coming Together?”
As they debate, Jackson walks in, towering over everybody in the room. The girls are not fazed. They look up quickly to say hello, then get right back to work.
The day is almost over, and they have a book to finish.