When we last checked in with Mr. Harlan’s fifth-graders at Brentano Math and Science Academy in Logan Square back in December, they were putting the finishing touches on the monster stories they’d been working on all semester under the editorial guidance of volunteers from 826CHI, a nonprofit writing and tutoring center in Wicker Park. Now they, and a few fourth-graders, are published authors who will be making their public debuts at the Printers Row Book Festival, reading from the new anthology of their stories, The Monster Gasped, OMG!
“It’s not what we envisioned,” says Abi Humber, 826CHI’s communications and project manager. “It’s much better.”
The 57 stories are all about monsters. Some of them are surprisingly dark. “There’s a lot of kidnapping and monsters realizing it’s not a great way to make friends,” says Humber. “It’s an eerie and creepy book, but still perfect for young audiences. It’s fun to peek inside their brains.”
826CHI commissioned 24 local grown-up artists, including Ryan Troy Ford, Jeffrey Brown, and Megan Pelto, to illustrate the stories. During the writing process, the students were encouraged to be as descriptive as possible. Much to the surprise of Humber and the other 826CHI editors and volunteers, the illustrators picked up on a lot of those details. “They really captured the student spirit,” Humber says.
The students handed in their final manuscripts just before Christmas. Since then, Humber thinks many of them have forgotten that they were working on a book and are a little confused about what’s happening. “The stories were all written by hand and the last time they saw them, they were in a Google Doc,” she says. “We did bring in some of our other books, and that helped crystallize what was happening. They got to see [other students’] names in the bylines.” Photographer Jasmin Shah took author photos of the students; each one, as well as the illustrators and the teacher, Mr. Harlan, contributed a brief author bio. (A surprising number of the students want to be YouTubers when they grow up, Humber reports.)
Next week, though, things will get real. In anticipation of the reading, the volunteers will return to Brentano to help the students perfect their performative reading techniques, in particular the supercreepy monster voice. On Thursday, June 9, they will do a dry run of the reading at a school assembly in preparation for the big reading at Printers Row on Saturday, June 11, at 2 PM. Author Joe Meno will provide the introduction. Humber says there will be a third reading at City Lit Books the evening of Tuesday, June 14. The books will be on sale at City Lit and also at the 826 Secret Agent Supply Store on Milwaukee Avenue.
The most recent 826 anthologies have all been written by older students—largely journalism, memoirs, and essays. “It’s fun to work with much younger students,” Humber says. “They really draw from their imaginations. For a very young person, it can also be an identity, like, ‘I like this, and I’m good at it, and for the next ten years I’m in school, I’ll keep doing it.’ I love hearing young people be so proud of themselves.”