HOW TO Create an appropriately weird THEME for your center
Many of the writing centers around the world have themes. This started with the pirate-themed center at 826 Valencia and has given rise to everything from a Bigfoot Research Center in Boston to an Alien Supply Store in Stockholm. Sometimes these themes involve whimsical storefronts, and sometimes they’re simply a general theme that informs the work of that center.
In any case, if you’re considering a theme, herewith some guidelines and suggestions:
Go with aspirational
In most cases, you’ll be serving students of every age, so your theme can’t be geared only to the smallest kids. Think of something a middle-schooler will still find interesting, and go with that. The smaller kids will follow. But it doesn’t work the other way around. A middle-schooler won’t go to a center with a toddler-aged theme.
Avoid corny at all costs
It might be tempting to think of a “kid” theme, something that is assumed kids will like. For example, circuses. This comes up from time to time: Why not a circus theme? The catch is, very few kids actually like circuses — not since the 1950s, anyway — and the theme would have been considered corny even then. So think of something truly unusual, truly odd.
Use your sense of humor
The theme, and everything associated with it, should be funny. Kids appreciate humor. Kids are inherently funny and appreciate the absurd. So respect their intelligence. Make the adults laugh, and the kids will laugh, too.
It doesn’t have to make sense
It’s better if it doesn’t. Don’t think that your theme has to relate to your city or town. If your town is famous for potato farming, your theme should not involve potato farming. The theme should be as far away from potatoes as possible. It should transport the students to another world, not simply echo the things they see every day.
Get help from your strangest friends
If you are more of an organizer and less of a joke-writer, get help from the joke-writers. Get help from the weirdest people you know. This is a huge part of your center and its appeal to both students and volunteers, so it’s not something to be done by a committee, or done by someone who is not weird. Find a weird person and ask for their help.
Do not play it safe
There have been times when themes have been decided by committee. These outcomes have been terrible. You must trust the weird. Come up a truly weird and memorable theme and stick with it. Don’t play it safe. Don’t water it down. No one wants a watered-down anything. Think memorable, distinct, risky, and creative. Do not think safe, expected, acceptable and committee-approved. If your board and staff are not divided on the theme, you are playing it safe.
Explore it with fierce commitment
Once you’ve decided on a theme, delve in like a PhD student. If your storefront is a place where beluga whales can buy bandannas — great theme, by the way — then you should have treatises about the right bandannas for beluga whales, and strong opinions about belugas and bandannas. Everything you do should flow from a ridiculous commitment to your bizarre theme. That’s where humor comes from, and it will make your site, and the experience for visitors, memorable. Anything less than that will seem bland. Again, find your weird friends and let them loose.