Novelist’s innovative startup, like Boise’s The Cabin, nurtures our next generation of writers

The Cabin is home to literary activists in Boise who help children and adults alike who are interested in writing.
The Cabin is home to literary activists in Boise who help children and adults alike who are interested in writing. Statesman file

The novelist Dave Eggers has achieved considerable literary fame since his breakaway memoir, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. To sample his work, just pick up a copy of “The Circle,” reminiscent of Orwell’s “1984,” only in this rendition, Big Tech has replaced Big Brother, as the novel addresses the loss of privacy embedded in the organizational culture of big info-tech companies.

Then there’s “The Lost Boys,” his novel based on the thousands of children who walked hundreds of miles to flee the civil war in southern Sudan in the 1980s, when Arab militias attacked their homes and villages.

Or his most recent novel, “The Parade,” a fable of Western intervention in the developing world and all that can go wrong when foreign contractors run roughshod over local customs and culture. These are only a few in a long list of best-sellers that earn him critical and literary acclaim.

For young writers around the world, fortunately, Eggers is so much more than a successful novelist, and he is leaving his writing legacy not only in his books, but also in writing workshops across the globe.

Eggers is amplifying the voices of children in underserved areas and helping them find their creative genius. At the recent Sun Valley Writers Conference, he spoke about his startup, 826 Valencia, and shared a most unusual approach to helping young writers find their creative space.

It all started in the Mission District of San Francisco, with a history that does not place it on the finest neighborhood list of the Chamber of Commerce. Think homelessness, crime and hipsters, and you are on your way to understanding the stereotypical Mission District of yesteryear, currently undergoing a controversial gentrification.

Eggers decided that he wanted to roll up his sleeves and create a high wall between what was going on in the community and what was going at 826 Valencia, the home of his tutoring center. If 826 Valencia sounds more like a street address than an after-school hangout for kids, that’s because it is a street address. In fact, when Eggers found this perfect location for his tutoring center, it was zoned for business use, so he had to come up with a business model that was attractive to kids and perhaps even enticed them into a store, which would lead to a backroom where tutoring takes place. And this is where it gets interesting.

Today, at 826 Valencia, it’s the 826 Valencia Pirate Supply Store where young pirate aficionados can stock up on pirate gear, but then access the tutoring center in back.

Thanks to Eggers’ leadership, 826 Valencia spread across the nation and across the globe. In New York, it’s the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. In Chicago, it’s the Wicker Park Secret Agent Supply Co. In Boston, it’s the Greater Boston Bigfoot Research Institute. There are two sites in Michigan, the Liberty Street Robot Supply and Repair in Ann Arbor and the Detroit Robot Factory in Detroit. Los Angeles and New Orleans also host 826 Valencia ventures, and Minneapolis is not far behind with the Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute.

In each storefront, there’s a retail experience for kids interested in the theme of pirates, Bigfoot, monsters or superheroes, but the real superheroes are the community leaders and volunteers who have created these spaces for children to learn to write. Kids who might not find the resources, encouragement or expertise at home to pull this off are writing and finding their own creative channels to express themselves – building confidence in their ability to succeed academically and professionally later in life.

You can learn more about the growth of 826 Valencia at its new national website, which encourages communities across America to spread the good work of the Valencia-inspired movement to help young people “write their own path forward.” Over 50 organizations from Sydney, Australia, to Sierra Leone have sprung up around the world. Some have the storefront themes like monsters or superheroes. One actually serves as a diplomatic embassy for visiting aliens, but others just offer writing opportunities for young people.

Boise knows something about this work of creating space for young people to explore their lives and their futures with the assistance of adult tutors and mentors. The Cabin is Boise’s home-grown group of writing and reading activists who forge community through the voices of all readers, writers and learners.

In addition to its programs for adult writers and readers, it also conducts Summer Writing Camps for young people from grade three through high school, and it runs Writers in the Schools, where professional teacher-writers come into classrooms to work with students and teachers.

There are many avenues to instill in young people a love of writing, and to model how writing can create a pathway through life that adds purpose to the daily challenges youth face. Dave Eggers chose one path that is now reaching young people across the globe, but here in Boise, The Cabin is equally effective in reaching the hearts and minds of young writers who have an opportunity to convey their life experiences, dreams and aspirations to the printed page.

The news of activists such as Eggers reaching so many young people often raises the question of, “What can I do to make a difference, to play a role in this youthful enterprise?” Especially since the Eggers model seems so far away from home.

No such problem if you live in Boise. Join The Cabin as a member and touch the lives of Boise’s next generation of writers and activists, who will explore and celebrate our humanity.

Bob Kustra served as president of Boise State University from 2003 to 2018. He is host of Readers Corner on Boise State Public Radio and is a member of the Statesman Editorial Board.

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