If you've wandered down Hoxton Street lately you might have spotted a new shop for all your monster supply needs. Except if you're hoping to pick up a bag of Gruffalo-strength litter you'll be disappointed; inside those tins are not food for one-eyed beasties, but short stories by Zadie Smith, David Nicholls, Nick Hornby, Joe Dunthorne and Laura Dockrill. This was our first clue that all is not as it seems...
The Monster Supplies Shop is, as you may well have heard, the front for the Ministry of Stories, a new charity dedicated to improving literacy among young people. We met Co-Directors Lucy Macnab and Ben Payne and found out what's going on behind this exceptionally cute and eyecatching idea - but not before choosing our monster name and skill.
The MoS aims to improve the lives of young people by getting them involved with creative writing. And not just fiction: it's poetry, scripts, games, copywriting, journalism - even blogging. Volunteers go into schools to run workshops, or anyone from 8-18 can drop into the Ministry or attend an event and experience one-to-one mentoring from a team of volunteers.
Ah, volunteers. The Ministry can't survive without an army of eager people to work with the kids, run the shop - even the decorating was done by volunteers. And did we mention their work covers blogging? Sign up online and you'll get some training (no prior professional skills are needed) and then you just pick the events you can help out with from the calendar. Easy.
But the Ministry's not the only organisation in town working with young people and literacy. First Story arranges for authors to run weekly after-school workshops in "challenging" secondary schools, and the resulting anthologies are published at the end of each year. It's been running since 2007 in London, Oxford and Nottingham, with over 3,500 stories and poems produced as a result.
Writers-in-residence are usually the sort of thing that's exclusive to fancy fee-paying schools, but First Story founder and teacher Katie Waldegrave was desperate to bring some of that confidence-instilling, creative support to normal schools in a way that wasn't linked to exams and targets, and started with William Fiennes volunteering to run weekly workshops. Now they're in 15 schools across London and looking to expand.
First Story is only a small charity and, unlike the Ministry, doesn't have its own space, but they do work with organisations like the LSE and run creative writing tutorials and summer residencies. And, as a charity, they're reliant on the kindness of volunteers to keep them going - right now, particularly anyone with design, tech or accounting skills.
If your New Year resolution was to get out and get involved - Big Society or otherwise - these places are a great place to start. With cuts to libraries and arts funding imminent, literacy charities will take on an importance like never before.
Images from the Ministry of Stories, taken by the author