Authors rally around Cincinnati's WordPlay, creating magical creatures for fundraising auction

CINCINNATI -- A new organization that aims to enchant Cincinnati youngsters with the power of the written word launched a fanciful fundraiser Dec. 1 with the help of local and national authors.

Slightly more than a year old, WordPlay  has invited the authors to participate so that the proceeds of the fundraiser can help the group reach out to more children. Libby Hunter, WordPlay’s co-founder and executive director, says she hopes the fundraiser can bring in $10,000 to expand services.

For the fundraiser, WordPlay asked 20 authors “to contribute a previously unknown fact about a legendary animal,” Hunter said, such as a jackalope or a mermaid.

“They have to write this fact on a physical object – a canvas, a bus ticket, a map – to create a unique work of art, with the authors expressing their creativity in a new way,” she explained.

The objects will be sold at online auction, and all proceeds will go to WordPlay. Author Michael Link, events manager at Joseph Beth Booksellers  and director of the Urban Legends Institute, serves on the board of directors of WordPlay, and Hunter said he has been instrumental in recruiting authors for the fundraiser.

Among those participating are nationally acclaimed writers George Saunders, Sherman Alexie and Nikki Giovanni.

Mac Barnett of Oakland, Calif., who has written the “Brixton Brothers” series and other childrens books, came to Cincinnati earlier this year and visited the WordPlay space, at the corner of Hamilton Avenue and Blue Rock Street in Northside. He said he was delighted by the experience, and for the fundraiser, he is contributing a story about a centaur.

“It’s a place where kids and adults can come together that’s productive for them individually but also for the community,” Barnett said. “It’s a place that takes a creative project that’s on a kid’s mind and makes it real.”

An "extremely noble cause"

Cincinnati's Marjorie Celona, author of the novel “Y,” is contributing a story about a water nymph to the WordPlay fundraiser. Reared in a house full of books, Celona said WordPlay “brings that experience to children who wouldn’t necessarily have that, and that is an extremely noble cause, so I’m completely eager to become a little soldier for them and their cause.”

Long the site of economic and social stress, Northside is undergoing a transformation as more middle-class singles and families move into the area’s classic homes. WordPlay was born amid those tensions.

While working as a real estate agent for nonprofits in community development, Hunter was showing a space to a client when children at a park started chucking rocks at them. Hunter, once a social worker and the mother of three, marched up to the group and demanded to know what would make them do such a thing.

“Of course, they blamed the rock-throwing on other kids,” Hunter said. “But after tempers died down, what I got from them is that they didn’t feel like there was anything that drew them in. There is a culture here, like many other urban neighborhoods, where some kids are not allowed to go home until eight or nine at night, and so they have to wander the streets.”

The next night, Hunter said, she talked by phone with other Northside residents about the problem of the children in the park. Then Hunter and Elissa Yancey – a contributing writer to WCPO – hit upon an idea.

“It has to be literacy," Hunter said. "We’re talking about generational cycles of poverty, and if we’re going to give these kids something different, we have to help them break out of this cycle. And it has to be unique and interesting to them.”

Words, guidance and... typewriters

For a template, Hunter and Yancey turned to 826 National, a San Francisco organization providing tutoring and writing help to children. Hunter and Yancey recruited volunteers as tutors. Hunter sold her home, and in September, WordPlay moved into its space on Hamilton Avenue; Hunter now lives above the store.

Children from kindergarten through 12th grade can participate, “and the first goal is to let the kids know they are safe with us, and that they can spend up to 18 hours a week with us.”

So far, 650 children have gotten involved with WordPlay; 125 are regular weekly visitors to the Northside writing center, and another 20 to 40 students work with WordPlay in five partner schools.

WordPlay also holds workshops, orchestrates field trips and invites authors to speak to the students about writing and language. To make words a more tactile experience, WordPlay’s space features devices that most computer-age children have never seen: typewriters.

Among the volunteers is architect Alice Emmons, who also lives in Northside and home-schools her 10-year-old daughter Vivian. Emmons taught a book-making class at WordPlay over the summer, and Vivian has fallen in love with the space.

“She’s getting contact with a great number of people in a wide variety of ages and socioeconomic backgrounds,” Emmons said of her daughter. “I’ve seen a lot of that at WordPlay, when different personalities will click

with a particular person. Parents can’t be everything to their kids, as much as we try, and in a place like this, a child can find somebody who can offer them something new in the way of support and guidance.”

Back to school

WordPlay’s influence is crossing over into the classroom. Sandi Horine is the guidance counselor at Aiken High School, where 90 percent of students receive free lunches. She said Hunter approached her last year to create a partnership with the school. Fifteen students were chosen for the extra time from WordPlay tutors, and already, attendance has improved, and unwanted behaviors have decreased.

“It’s the attention from the adults that makes all the difference,” Horine said. “I wouldn’t call it mentoring. I would call it coaching. It’s that relationship, that investment, that is really changing life for these kids.”

The typewriters, too, are a huge hit, Horine said:

“They actually fight over who’s going to get to use them. They think they’re the coolest thing ever. The experience at WordPlay makes writing cool, so to speak. It’s where the kids are learning that writing is not just an assignment; it’s a self-expression.” 

Connect with WordPlay

  • 4041 Hamilton Ave. Cincinnati
  • Tel. 513-260-8129
  • Hours: Monday - Thursday 2:30 to 6 p.m. & Saturday Noon-4 p.m.
  • Twitter & Facebook

WATCH: Libby Hunter at TEDxCincinnati, "Turning conflict into connection"

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