Imagine you’re a 12-year-old pupil at an Edinburgh school. You did an eight-week project earlier this year in your English class and now it’s being returned to you. Not very exciting, right?
Now imagine that you were one of 450 pupils in the capital who worked with the Super Power Agency literacy charity on a creative writing project. This time, when your work is handed back to you, it’s in the form of a professionally produced, designed and edited book. Because of the pandemic, your book is also being launched on YouTube. And when you check it out, you find that the person reading your story is... Stephen Fry. Or Rory Bremner. Or Bill Paterson. Or Alexander McCall Smith. Or Lynn Ferguson. Or...
In fact, there’s a whole host of celebrity readers (and, in fairness, non-celebrity, volunteer readers like me too). There have to be: stories by those 450 Edinburgh writers have been turned into nine different Super Power Agency publications, and readings of 100 of them have been filmed. This is, in short, Scotland’s biggest ever virtual book launch. Nothing else comes close.
But let’s get back inside your pre-teen head. Maybe you’ve stayed up past your official bedtime and seen Simon Bird, the gawky star of The Inbetweeners. Here he is, reading your short story. Maybe you saw Russell Tovey in the leading role in the BBC/HBO dystopian drama Years and Years. This time, the words he’s speaking are yours.
Imagine the confidence that gives you. The boost to your self-esteem and your determination to read, write and learn. Now imagine if there’d been something like that when YOU were at school. If, by the time you were 13, you were already a published author twice over. With the Super Power Agency, that happens quite a bit.
All of this matters because if Scottish literacy levels are ever to improve and the attainment gap between rich and poor schools to be narrowed, these nine books are the tip of the spear.
The Super Power Agency started in Leith. It is based on a nine-city American literacy charity that so impressed Edinburgh designer and charity founder Maxine Sloss that in 2017 she brought over its charismatic African-American CEO, Gerald Richards, to set up something similar over here. That year its volunteers started work on creative writing projects with 34 pupils at Leith Academy.
Leith Academy is still at the heart of the Super Power Agency’s work. It’s here that it produced its first two books, here where its first – The Leithers’ Guide to Leith – went into a second edition. Literacy statistics at the school are now heading markedly upwards. As far as you can measure it, so are pupils’ feelings of self-esteem and confidence.
Word of the charity’s effectiveness has spread throughout Edinburgh. In less than three years, the Super Power Agency is now working with 1,000 pupils a year and almost a dozen of the capital’s schools. It has produced books of letters written between pupils and pensioners (who then met), run after-school comedy writing workshops, produced guides for incoming S1 pupils, personal essays, and chapbooks of poetry and microfiction.
Before the virus came, I regularly saw these projects take root in a class’s collective imagination. Starting in January, we were working in three primary schools (Trinity, Wardie and Victoria) on an eight-week project to write short stories which would ideally involve creatures from another galaxy having to learn to make the transition to life on Earth. The pupils were all in Year 7 and about to make the similarly enormous leap to senior school.
At first, the children were slightly shy about asking for help. Most don’t, after all, talk to any grown-ups other than their relatives, and lack the confidence to do so. Somehow, though, they worked out that we weren’t being paid, so that meant we were actually interested in what they had to say. The volunteers, they realised, could also help fix some of the wobblier things in their minds, like how to use a comma or an apostrophe. They started looking forward to our visits.
Sadly, because of the pandemic, those visits – usually there’d be an average of three volunteers per class, but sometimes there were as many as ten – have had to be curtailed for its duration. Privacy issues mean that the volunteers are unable to offer to appear in person online, but Super Power Agency CEO Gerald Richards is appealing for volunteers who would be able to offer online written mentoring.
“Maybe it’s just the American optimism in me, but I think this is the kind of thing that really can transform a whole generation of young people. And as we compete in the global economy, we’re going to need levels of self-confidence and creativity that we just don’t have right now. And anyone who can help us in that would be more than welcome.
He added: “We know how difficult things have been for the pupils because of the lockdown. We know that our work is needed now more than ever because of it.
“Writing can help them express their feelings and thoughts about what’s going on in the world.
“Those nine Super Power Agency books which we are launching on Wednesday will help us start recognising those youth voices and how they can help us fight back.”
Details of all nine of the books published by the Super Power Agency – along with how to donate to the charity or volunteer – can be found at superpoweragency.com/results and on youtube.com/channel/UCKsQFHrpWx_iP068fcsDkDQ. Chapbook/magazines are £4 and the books are £7 each