Among the many treasures one could stumble across at this past weekend’s Printer’s Row Lit Fest, one of the finest, and most polyphonic, comes from 826CHI, a literacy and education nonprofit that engages with students across the city through workshops, field trips and tutoring to teach the joy of reading and writing. As part of their ongoing efforts, 826CHI, under the auspices of longtime volunteer Bryce Parsons-Twesten, connected with 57 fourth and fifth grade students at the Brentano Math & Science Academy in Logan Square, urging them to pour out the stories they held in their hearts and heads.
A book illustrated by 24 local artists: The Monster Gasped, OMG!, a collection of short tales featuring monsters and adventures, wrapped in a darker, wise-beyond-the years sheen by the students, later workshopped and reinterpreted by adult illustrators to produce this lovingly created text.
Speaking to 826CHI’s Abi Humber, she noted that The Monster Gasped, OMG! is the epitome of the organization’s efforts. “Our work is collaborative, empowering, experiential, imaginative & playful, interdisciplinary, inquiry-led, project-based, and student centered, and we provide a safe space for students to share their work, and see it published (in print).”
The most engaging aspect of this book is the pairing between aspiring elementary school writers and established professionals. I have a soft spot for children’s films from the 80s and early 90s (Labyrinth, The NeverEnding Story, Dark Crystal, Return to Oz, The Land Before Time, even, Adventures in Babysitting) and The Monster Gasped, OMG! captures the sort of vulnerability and dawning maturity many children feel during the transitional years between elementary and middle school.
Key to the success of those films is that they aimed for where kids were going in life, rather than where they were. Much like Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee aimed to write stories that shot a bit over the heads of his readership, though still being very much for younger readers, these children films’ spoke to them as adults in the works, rather than developmentally arrested juveniles.
The Monster Gasped, OMG!, because it combines young voices with more mature perspectives, is a prime example of what young readers need to encounter. The collaboration alone is attention worthy because it fosters a sense of continuity between generations. It’s a way of embodying (to quote The Lion King) the circle of life.
Parsons-Twesten has a reputation for encouraging youngsters to let their imaginations run wild. And wild they do, captured beautifully in moving, evocative, and diffuse styles of art. If 826CHI’s goals is to expand access to the joys of reading and writing for children, few projects better embody that than this.
Purchase The Monster Gasped, OMG! here or in person at 826CHI’s storefront at 1276 N Milwaukee Ave. in Wicker Park.