An imaginative space that helps kids believe in stories – and themselves

Why We Wrote This

“Making learning fun” is almost cliché. But sometimes people really do come up with novel ways of engaging children in educational projects. In the case of Grimm & Co. in Rotherham, England, that way is magic.

Courtesy of Grimm & Co.
Jeremy Dyson, a British screenwriter for TV, film, and theater, looks at a comic book drawn by an attendee of a storytelling workshop at Grimm & Co. in Rotherham, England. Mr. Dyson is a trustee of Grimm & Co., a nonprofit that opened a magic-themed store in 2016 in Rotherham.

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Rotherham, England, is a town better known for postindustrial decline, not literacy events. But that is why it is home to Grimm & Co.’s Apothecary to the Magical – an imaginative space that helps kids in Rotherham believe in stories and in themselves.

Deborah Bullivant founded it as a nonprofit in 2014. It offers free writing workshops at its store and in schools, including after-school and vacation programs, serving close to 3,000 children a year.

It does so with a Harry Potteresque facade of magic and whimsy that gets kids engaged. The three-story Victorian department store that Grimm & Co. occupies is a spot-lit space with wooden floors and blackboard displays, but its wares are unconventional: goblin mucus soap, secret spell books, and sacks of mixed curses.

Ms. Bullivant’s broader goal is to anchor art and creativity in this former steel-and-coal town of 258,000 that isn’t on Britain’s cultural map. She dreams of making it a storytelling capital for children that builds on the success of Grimm & Co., which is already looking for a bigger space.

On a rainy Saturday morning, 11 young teens gather inside a downtown store. It’s a spot-lit space with wooden floors and blackboard displays, but its wares are unconventional: goblin mucus soap, secret spell books, and sacks of mixed curses.

Welcome to Grimm & Co.’s Apothecary to the Magical, established in 1148 but until recently only visible to its exclusively immortal clientele.

There’s a fairy tale-writing desk, a meat cellar for dragons, and a bookshelf with bound volumes and potion blenders. On its bottom shelf is an inverted bottle that opens a secret door to a writers’ den for the Saturday morning club, whose members are waiting to go inside.

Before they can pass through the portal, however, Sarah Christie, a staffer, poses a question. “What would you consider to be humanity’s greatest achievement?”

Several hands go up. Computers! The internet! Not so, interjects Connor, a 10-year-old boy with a serious expression behind his shamrock-green glasses. “Magic is humanity’s greatest achievement,” he says. “As well as octopuses.”

For school-age scribes in this faded English town, Grimm & Co. might rank as its greatest achievement. It offers free writing workshops at its store and in schools, including after-school and vacation programs, serving close to 3,000 children a year.

To Deborah Bullivant, who founded it as a nonprofit in 2014, its success in inspiring kids like Connor is confirmation of academic research she developed to improve literacy in Rotherham, a town often defined more by its past than by its future.

Her research showed that disadvantaged schoolchildren can be guided to think and write creatively, even when they doubt their own ability to do so. “It has to be real and it has to be playful,” she says.

“Someone’s got to do this”

While Grimm & Co. targets children in deprived communities, its workshops are open to all and it blends students with learning disabilities with their peers.

The effect can be liberating. A mother of an autistic boy thanked Ms. Bullivant for giving him the confidence to write. “Everywhere else in the world everyone thinks I’m weird because of my autism. At Grimm & Co. everyone is weird,” the boy told his mom.

Ms. Bullivant’s broader goal is to anchor art and creativity in this former steel-and-coal town of 258,000 that isn’t on Britain’s cultural map. She dreams of making it a storytelling capital for children that builds on the success of Grimm & Co., which is already looking for a bigger space.

Courtesy of Grimm & Co.
Grimm & Co. founder Deborah Bullivant is helping children create their own stories.

The apothecary, which opened (to mortals) in 2016, has become a tourist attraction, and Ms. Bullivant recently hired a retail manager, her ninth staff member. With an annual budget of £360,000 ($440,000), it relies on more than 100 volunteers to mentor children and support a range of projects, from radio dramas to concerts where children’s poems are set to music.

Ms. Bullivant is a former educator. In 2009, she was hired by Rotherham Borough Council to develop a strategy to improve literacy in its primary schools that lagged in reading and writing. Her approach, which paired mentors with disadvantaged children in an imaginative setting, led to an 18% gain in test scores among 11-year-old boys over two years.

Then the funding ran out. Ms. Bullivant realized that her research would sit unused unless it was put into action, and she was angry. It was anger, she says, that led to Grimm & Co. “Someone’s got to do this. No one else is prepared to do it so I’ve got to do it,” she says.

The storefront concept came from watching a TED Talk by Dave Eggers, the bestselling author and founder of 826 Valencia, a pirate-themed store and tutoring nonprofit in San Francisco. Mr. Eggers explained how the store, which had inspired 826s in other U.S. cities, had become a gateway that children could enter to uncork their imagination.

“It was what I was thinking about. It meant I wasn’t the only person who was doing this,” says Ms. Bullivant.

Changing Rotherham

Indeed, an 826-inspired store, the Ministry of Stories, had opened in London in 2010, backed by bestselling British authors. But that was London, not Rotherham, a town better known for postindustrial decline, not literacy events.

In 2014, Rotherham’s reputation took another hit: A national inquiry into the organized sexual abuse of around 1,400 girls over more than a decade severely criticized police and social services for failing to investigate the ethnic-Pakistani perpetrators. Far-right groups showed up to protest and sow more divisions in a town that had recently absorbed a wave of European immigrants.

Undeterred, Ms. Bullivant found a three-story Victorian department store that had been converted into a grimy pub and set about creating her apothecary. It wasn’t enough to be good, she reasoned. It had to be amazing, an imaginative space that would make kids in Rotherham believe in stories – and in themselves.

This is the power of narrative, according to Nicholas Serota, chairman of Arts Council England, which is one of Grimm’s funders. In February he told an academic conference on creativity that Grimm had given young people the narrative tools to reshape their world.

“Rotherham’s postindustrial neglect and the painful history of child abuse are facts. But why should the town and its young people be always defined by this history?” he asked. “That is not what it is. This is not who they are. Their storytelling explores how the individual imagination can change the world around it.”

Before the launch, Ms. Bullivant discussed her ideas with Mr. Eggers and sent him photos after the store opened. Last December he went to Rotherham to visit what he calls “one of the most elaborate, anarchic, and wildly creative spaces” for young writers he’s ever seen.

“People around the world have adapted the [826] idea to their own communities. But no one has taken it further than Grimm & Co.,” he says in an email. “Kids really do respond to spaces like this. They get it.”

Writing a better future

Upstairs in the writers’ den, Ms. Christie warms up the children with a word association game before pulling out her phone.

She’s just received a message from herself in 2039, she tells them. Apparently the future is a big mess, so the club has to imagine an ideal world so as to divert the course of history “in a non-time-warping way.”

The children, ages 10 to 14, break into groups, or work alone. Using markers on poster paper, they draw and write the rules of their imaginary worlds, which lean toward green energy and space travel.

Connor sits alone at a table sketching in a book. His future world, Cephalopod City, is ruled by octopuses and squid and cuttlefish; it’s illegal for humans to eat seafood.

When he grows up, Connor says he wants to be an astrophysicist and to write part time. He’s already written one book at Grimm, he adds. That puts him in a minority at his primary school. “A lot of people in my class don’t like writing,” he says. The first time he came to Grimm, “my mind was like, pow!” he says, miming an exploding head.

With 10 minutes to go, Ms. Christie gathers the group members and asks them to present their worlds. Children ask questions and give feedback. Then it’s time to descend to the store and out to the ordinary world of a rainy lunchtime in an ordinary English town.

There’s an elevator, or a green playground slide that ends near the door where parents are waiting and where magic goods are for sale. But for these kids the magic is in their minds.

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the ethnicity of the perpetrators in the sexual abuse cases.

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