Grimm & Co.’s magical mission
Ever wondered where stories are made? The answer might surprise you. Nestled at the end of Doncaster Gate in Rotherham, literary charity Grimm & Co is dedicated to changing lives one story at a time. And with an exciting grant in place for the charity to expand into bigger and even more magical places, this story is only just beginning…
It’s Grimm up North…
Perched at the end of Doncaster Gate, between a few very ordinary cafes and hairdressers, is something you might not expect to see in the centre of Rotherham.
In its windows, brown-paper packages and glittering bottles catch the light. At the entrance, painted signs forbid smoking, cursing, and large groups of ogres. And across the grey Victorian frontage, in tall gothic letters, are the words “Grimm & Co – Apothecary to the Magical.”
Inside, a cluster of schoolchildren are gathered at the front desk. Their eyes are round and their voices are reverent; they’re pointing at the glass jars of strange ingredients, skirting around stacks of broomsticks, peering into crates packed with ‘goblin mucus’ (green slabs of soap), ‘magic beans’ (cheerfully coloured sweets) and ‘word wands’ (black pencils – which will come in handy later).
The shop assistant hushes them. After a brief introduction, in which several students reveal themselves to actually be wizards, unicorns and goblins in disguise, she leads them over to a bookshelf at the back of the shop. Some naughty creatures have made a mess of the shelves, she explains. The kids gleefully point out the things that have been dislodged – a notebook, a bottle, an upturned jug. And as the shop assistant rights this final object, the bookshelf swings open. The children genuinely gasp. They can see into the room beyond, where every wall is covered in writing, and a bookshelf staircase leads up into the gloom…
They’ve found the entrance to the writing workshop – and here, the real magic begins.
The method behind the magic
It turns out that the shopfront is just that; a cover-up for the real purpose behind this flourishing children’s charity, whose mission is to inspire confidence and creativity in young people aged 7-18 – “changing lives one story at a time”.
It all began in 2011, when educationalist and social entrepreneur Deborah Bullivant was tasked with improving the area’s consistently low key-stage 2 literacy results. Funded by Rotherham council, Bullivant led a study into the effect of creative literacy approaches on SATS results, and found that the best way of boosting grades was to remove children from their day-to-day lives and provide attentive, individual mentoring sessions. This approach had undeniable results; within a year, the SATs results of Rotherham’s male students had improved by 11% – and for children with English as their second language, results in reading and writing had gone up by 22%.
Bullivant’s studies soon led her to the research of postmodernist author Dave Eggers, whose TED talk ‘My wish: Once Upon a School’ proposed that the effects of imaginative, one-on-one mentoring could be astronomical. In his speech, Eggers revealed how his original plan – to open up a tutoring centre for San Fransico’s underprivileged children – had been scuppered by laws which said that the premises he’d bought had to be used for retail. But the writer’s journey didn’t end there. He transformed the space into what was, ostensibly, a pirate supply store – decked out with peg-legs, eyepatches and potions to combat scurvy.
Ridiculous? Maybe. But it did the job. Eggers had his premises, and the swashbuckling shopfront was, if nothing else, an excellent way to attract the attention of his target audience. Because behind the scenes, Eggers and his team of like-minded volunteers were establishing the beginnings of a new movement: free, inclusive workshops intended to encourage, inspire and introduce a new generation to the love of storytelling. The idea quickly spread across the globe, inspiring a superhero supply store in Brooklyn, the Ministry of Stories in London, and, eventually, Bullivant herself.
Casting a spell
Inside the Writer’s Pad – a cosy ivy-clad space where children can sprawl across the floor or huddle at desks to work on their creations – silence has fallen, broken only by the scribbling of pencils on paper and the occasional private giggle. The collaborative part of the session is over, and each student is now writing their own ending for the tale. As volunteers help those whose imaginations need a bit of ungluing, staff behind the scenes are working on typing, binding and illustrating each story, so that every child can leave with their very own published book. “The kids will work harder than they’ve ever worked in their life if they know it’s going to be permanent,” Eggers says. “Once they’ve written at that level, they can never go back. It’s absolutely transformative.”
And sure enough, as they peruse the oddities in the shop downstairs (after taking a trip down the magic beanstalk slide), there’s a tangible air of excitement. A small crowd has gathered near the till, all talking over each other about the endings they’ve written. “I’m an ogre,” a small girl solemnly informs me, having just tested herself on the ‘Magic O-Meter’ wheel. “Did you enjoy the workshop?” I ask her, and she nods so hard she staggers slightly. “I love writing stories,” she says. “I’m going to write another one when I get back to school.”
She won’t be alone. 82% of teachers whose classes had attended a workshop said that their students were more motivated to write after the session, and 69% said their students’ confidence and self-esteem had improved. And the impact that the storymaking sessions have had hasn’t gone unnoticed. Since its beginnings, Grimm & Co has worked with over 9,900 students in their workshops alone, as well as many more in out-of-school activities and festivals. The initiative has even received support from a whole host of authors and big industry names, from Joanne Harris and Mark Gattis to Sir Bob Geldof. It’s clear that inspiring creativity in young people is a passion shared by many – us at Storycatchers included.
The next chapter and an unexpected twist
With such great results and incredible acclaim from educators and celebraties alike, it’s no wonder that Grimm & Co’s storymaking sessions were soon booked up months in advance. For Deborah, the next step was obvious. In 2019, the Grimm & Co team won their Arts Council bid and were awarded almost £500,000 in funding to put towards buying and renovating their new premises; a 250 year-old Methodist church on Talbot Lane.
But there was a twist in the tale. In March 2020, due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Grimm & Co were required to close their doors along with countless other small businesses and enterprises across the country. Rather than see this as a setback however, the team took it as a new opportunity to bring their inspirational offering online. Engaging with school children and young people across social media and through their website, Grimm & Co sought to bring a bit of magic to households on lockdown – with everything from writing prompts and competitions, to creative wellbeing sessions designed to help young people navigate their own anxieties around the pandemic.
As for the future? It’s still looking bright. While there’s not yet a definite date for the opening of their new premises, the team are still looking forward to getting set up on Talbot Lane. With three spacious classrooms in which schoolgroups can craft their stories, the new Grimm & Co will also include an independent bookshop and café (with options for both mortals and magical beings) as well as the popular apothecary giftshop.
*This is an updated version of the article which was originally written before the Coronavirus pandemic.