100 Story Building: Early Harvest

Arts, Design
Nikki Stefanoff in coversation with Simon Conlon
Photos supplied by 100 Story Building
Want to pick up a copy of Early Harvest issue six? Visit the 100 Story Building website here.

Nestled behind the doors of an ordinary building in the heart of Footscray sits a world of wonder. Think a trap door leading to 99 levels below ground, secret bookshelves, a time machine and an eager gaggle of volunteers waiting to support and engage children in all things literacy. All that’s required is that you leave reality at the door.

The story behind Melbourne’s 100 Story Building, a centre for young writers, begins back in 2009 and over 12,500 km away on the streets of San Francisco.

Jenna Williams and Lachlann Carter had headed overseas to complete internships with 826 Valencia, best-selling author Dave Eggers’ not for profit writing centre in San Fran’s Mission District. After returning to Australia and, inspired by their time with Eggers and his team of volunteers, they founded their own not-for-profit creative writing organisation – Pigeons.

Pigeons began delivering creative publishing programs to primary school students in Melbourne’s inner-west. The project was supported by over 100 authors, volunteers and publishing professionals who all agreed with the philosophy that words were not only powerful but could also help to transform young lives.

After Pigeons had been going for a couple of years, Williams and Carter recognised a need for a bricks and mortar centre where they could not only support young writers but also their teachers and parents. In 2013 they, along with Jessica Tran, a long-time Pigeons volunteer, made that a reality and opened the doors to 100 Story Building.

Alongside holiday programs, school group workshops, teacher support and being a welcoming space for the community the team at 100 Story Building publish an annual literary magazine called Early Harvest.

Every year a team of young editors volunteer to be a part of this program and, over the course of 10 weeks, after first coming up with a theme for the issue they go on to invite both story and design submissions. They then, under the mentorship of professionals from the publishing industry, produce a gloriously well put together magazine, which can be purchased online.

As Early Harvest issue six makes its way into the world we grabbed a quick chat with Simon Conlon, Programs Manager at 100 Story Building, about all things literacy, working with kids and the power of a childish imagination.


What did you do prior to 100 Story Building?
I was an actor, a clown doctor, a photographer, a graffiti artist, a visual artist workshop facilitator, a circus trainer, a parade co-ordinator, and many other things. But right before I started at 100 Story Building, I worked at Museums Victoria taking dinosaur bones and T-rex-type skulls in a van to regional Victorian towns.

You facilitate so many of the programs at 100SB, what does a good workshop consist of?
There needs to be a good idea behind the workshop, but then enough space for each participant to bring in their own inspiration. The workshop might have two, three or more mini sections which each contains its own idea. You need to first explain the idea, flesh it out with examples, then judge when the children have started to speed off on their own tangents. If you leave that too long, they start to go off in their own heads and stop listening to you. Or just wander off to the table to start; that happens too.

The workshops you run are so imaginative - Space Write and a Perilous Quest are just a couple of examples. Where do the ideas come from when creating new workshops?
Sometimes we start from an aspect of story creation. For example, we may challenge ourselves to create a world-building workshop. Other times, workshops arise from needs that teachers come to us with.

Do you see a change in the literacy abilities of the children who come on a regular basis?
We have had writing-avoiders turn into ‘I can do your activity today, I have to write my story!'. We certainly are not the sole reason for the change in them but we do feel that giving them a space that bolsters their confidence to start writing certainly helps.

How important is the teacher’s role in the success of the programs?
The school’s workshops are designed to be self-contained and will stand alone within the two-hour timeslot. They also allow the teachers to continue to use them as a tool for creative writing for the rest of the term or beyond. We also offer Professional Learning sessions to teachers to open up the workshops and our approaches even further.


How much fun was it to come up with all the things that make 100 Story Building so special? Did you get the kids involved?
All the things that make 100 Story Building special have been designed by the children and young people involved. They gave us the idea to buy a time machine, they wanted a secret room so we definitely DIDN'T build that, there are even some ideas that we haven't implemented yet, like the one Tonne-weight over the front door to squish baddies. That's in the pipeline.

The levels of 100 Story Building are obviously a big draw for the children, can you tell me about any of them?
There is the invisible level - I haven't seen that level yet. There is the top secret level, but I can't tell you anything about that. There is the narwhal level that overflows into the bathrooms if you flush the toilet wrong. There is the anti-gravity chamber on level 56 but that’s leaking into our secret room. Oops, I shouldn't have told you that. There is no secret room on Level 100, definitely nothing behind the big bookshelf, so I don't know why you are asking about it. Can we move on?

Yes! You obviously need to come to 100 Story Building with a sense of fun and openenss, which gets harder as you get older. What’s the best thing about a child’s imagination?
It doesn't have to conform to tropes, believability or logic - it just is. Here’s an example of a workshop facilitator and student exchange:
Facilitator: In my story I'm going to accidentally cut down my grandad's favourite tree with what?
Grade 3 student: A DRAGON!
Facilitator: Sure!

Have you ever been blown away by a story a child has written?
All the time. And illustrations too, sometimes they have an amazing style.

Which is your favourite level?
Level 63 - there is a great Zoo with very adventurous breeding system but a poor Health and Safety Record. Just last week the toucanopus - a toucan-octopus - pecked its way out of its enclosure and started bothering the mothcats. There was fur and feathers everywhere!


‘All the things that make 100 Story Building special have been designed by the children and young people involved. They gave us the idea to buy a time machine, they wanted a secret room so we definitely DIDN'T build that, there are even some ideas that we haven't implemented yet, like the one-tonne weight over the front door to squish baddies. That's in the pipeline.’


Nikki Stefanoff is editor of Matters Journal. After spending 13 years editing and writing for newspapers and magazines in London, Nikki now uses her journalism background and love of a good chat to find powerful and meaningful stories to tell.