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The Children's Literacy Charity with a Magical New Premises in Rotherham

The Children's Literacy Charity with a Magical New Premises in Rotherham
July 2024
Reading time 3 Minutes

Grimm & Co. use creative approaches to improve children's literacy across Yorkshire

In April they opened their magical new premises, The Emporium of Stories, in Rotherham. Living North spoke to Deborah to find out more.

The origins of Grimm and Co. go back to 2009, when Deborah was commissioned by the former regional development agency for the Yorkshire and Humber region, Yorkshire Forward, to find ways to improve children’s literacy in Rotheram. Crucially, she says that this research was underpinned by ‘the theory that creative approaches work’.

‘By the time it finished, it was compelling,’ Deborah says. ‘Some unprecedented changes had occurred for the children and young people in all sorts of ways, in all the different measures that we put in place. Children’s whole attitudes to themselves, their aspirations, their resilience, their confidence had been improved, but so had the measurements that the Department for Education and other governmental bodies were looking to explore, and that was the SATs results of children at Key Stage 2.’

A subsequent change in government and loss in funding (Yorkshire Forward was abolished in 2012) meant that the project never came to fruition, but Deborah was determined not to let the data she had gathered go to waste. Instead, she continued to work with the community on a voluntary basis to create a strategy. At the same time, she came across American author Dave Eggers’ TED Talk, My Wish: Once Upon a School. 

‘He was talking about how to set up a shop for pirates,’ she laughs. ‘If you need a plank, they sell them by the foot. Whatever pirates need really. Then there was a writer’s centre through a secret door.

’It wasn’t a literacy centre – with the stigma that that brings for the children that need it – it was a pirate supply store. I just thought “wow”.’

She presented this model to local children, whose response told her everything she needed to know. ‘It opened on the 29th February 2016 as the Apothecary to the Magical, with a secret door through to the Writer’s Pad,’ she says. ‘We started off with just me doing all of it – one minute I’d be in the shop, the next minute I’d be at the counter, the next minute I’d be delivering a story session!’ Word spread, and she was soon joined by lots of volunteers and artists as the charity grew and grew. ‘Schools were trying to get booked in, but we had a year’s waiting list and it just wasn’t big enough,’ she says. 

The search began for a bigger premises, and she came across a local church that was up for sale. ‘The minister pleaded with me to go for it because she wanted it to go back to a community base,’ says Deborah. ‘She knew that our work was all about the social, cultural literacies of children which is more important now than ever’. On the first day of the UK’s national lockdown, the sale went through. 

The building was not in good condition, and as the pandemic took hold, the price of the materials and work needed to restore it soared. Luckily, they managed to secure funding from multiple sources including one particularly generous local, who personally donated £178,000 (attracting additional Gift Aid of £44,000). While construction got underway, they operated from a pop-up shop in Rotherham town centre. ‘We didn’t stop delivering through all of the pandemic,’ says Deborah. ‘We needed to deliver more than ever, the demand for what we do grew and grew.’

With the necessary repairs completed, they enlisted Lumsden Design, the interior design firm behind the Harry Potter Studios, to transform the church into a magical Emporium of Stories. Visitors to the new Emporium, which opened on 9th April, enter through huge metal gates under an arch emblazoned with ‘Emporium of Stories’ in swirling, Gothic script. ‘It’s very Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,’ says Deborah. 

Once inside, children can enjoy the building’s warren of wonderful spaces. Tree roots sprawl out of ceilings, a giant’s bookcase doubles as a staircase, a fireplace is a secret door and diners at The Feastery have a choice between magical or mortal menus. Most important, however, is the work that takes place there. As well as school-age children, Grimm & Co. work with babies, families, and children with special educational needs, and they have a theatre company that visits schools. As an example, Deborah describes their school storymaking workshops.

‘Children arrive with their imaginations,’ she says, explaining that the booming voices of Graham Grimm (the Emporium’s fictional founder) and his sister Grizelda introduce creative prompts from the ether. ‘They have an illustrator working with them, a facilitator bringing the stories out of them, and there are lots of story mentors and volunteers in the room. Each child leaves as the author of a book with their name on the front of it and their own individual ending in the back of it.

‘We’re based in Rotherham but we are Yorkshirewide,’ says Deborah. ‘We get school visits and family visits from everywhere – all over the place – because we’re unique. There’s nothing like us.’

Grimm & Co’s Emporium of Stories, Ship Hill, Rotherham S60 2HG

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