The most coveted ticket for kids in the Dufferin and Bloor West-streets area is out of this world.
Children – ages six to 18 – can get their boarding passes at the Intergalactic Travel Authority in Bloordale Village before blasting off to a galaxy in which a little orb called the Story Planet can be found. It’s a place where epic adventures, fantasy and fairy tales come to life, coaxed from young people’s imaginations with help from professional authors and illustrators.
To us mere mortals, we can only catch a glimpse of this outer world, a.k.a a non-profit kids literacy centre, via the Travel Authority, a storefront cafe on Bloor Street West, just west of Dufferin Street.
Beyond the portal, the Story Planet is a colourful, happy environment where children’s books by such acclaimed authors as Robert Munsch and Dr. Seuss are stacked upon various shelves; a selection of illustrators’ characters created in collaboration with the kids have been framed and adorn the walls.
Founder Liz Haines had been organizing literacy workshops out of her home office for the past three years until she found the ideal spot to launch her venture.
“The need far outweighs what we can do,” Haines told The Villager, about the new venture which opened about two months ago. “We have a wait list for our workshops. Schools are calling us. There’s no question of the need. This is a hugely diverse area, the most multicultural ward in Toronto.”
The Story Planet offers one and three-day workshops in conjunction with teachers that focus on literacy and art, but within the school curriculum, Haines explained. For example, a teacher recently approached the centre about facilitating a workshop that would encompass several subjects, including social science, healthy choices and three-dimensional art. The end result? The creation of the most “disgusting,” “unhealthy” character, said Haines, adding that he had cigarette legs.
Each student was then asked to create plasticine characters of what this thing would look like if he was healthy – or what he looked like before he let himself go, recalled Haines.
“For us, the excitement is seeing a child who is sparked, who can’t stop writing or drawing. They’re really keen to communicate,” she said.
Children like seven-year-old Rosie, who loves to write stories. She is especially thrilled because October is ‘Monster Month’ during which the kids get to create their own creatures out of plasticine and then make up stories about them. Rosie calls hers ‘Silly Billy.’
“It lives in haunted parks,” she said on a recent Wednesday afternoon as she participated in the after-school program. “He’s a very good monster, really funny.”
Rosie, who says she’s been writing since she was two, already knows she wants to be an author when she grows up.
Her mother Lucy Brandon said she and her daughter happened upon the Story Planet while out and about in their community.
“Just being a part of something in the neighbourhood, that’s very important to her,” said Brandon of Rosie. The authors and illustrators who facilitate workshops in the classroom are compensated, but those who participate in workshops at the centre are the very much in demand volunteers.
“Volunteers help us achieve as close to one-on-one time with the kids,” said Haines. “Focused attention is just as important as the activity itself.”
Tiendara, 7, and Thusanth, seven-and-a-half, agree the “teachers” are “nice.”
“They help us with our homework,” said Tiendara, who says she loves to read and write.
Added Thusanth, “They teach us brand new things we’ve never learned before.”
The Story Planet is funded by the Ontario Arts Council, the Toronto Arts Council, CIBC, RBC, TD and the United Way’s Enterprising non-profits fund, but it is working on diversifying its funding. The Intergalactic Travel Authority is key to building on this funding, said Haines.
“It provides this great meeting place in the community. The whole idea is that you’re in this airport lounge, you grab your coffee and a souvenir – I always knew I wanted it to be a space lounge. If you’re a child, you can check your flight and travel to the Story Planet. It’s magical, there’s a real joy here.”
Haines’ inspiration comes from American writer Dave Eggers’ non-profit writing and tutoring center ‘826 National.’ In fact, she travelled to San Francisco in 2009 for an “826-101 to learn from their successes and mistakes.”
“For 11 years they’ve been up and running. They’ve got eight centres in the U.S.,” said Haines, adding that it’d be fun to open the Story Planet Canada-wide.
Haines has always worked with kids, first in dance and theatre, then educational television at TVOntario.
“I just love their (inquisitiveness), their creativity and their brutal honesty,” she said.
For more information about the Story Planet and its programs and workshops, to volunteer or donate, visit storyplanet.ca