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Eggers' work in words rewarded

Bestselling author and founder of nationwide literacy centers receives the Heinz Award.

October 24, 2007|Carolyn Kellogg | Special to The Times

If literary lions still exist, Dave Eggers is one. His debut, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," hit bestseller lists in early 2000, creating a dedicated fan base. Since then, he's helped shepherd McSweeney's, the literary quarterly he founded, led its quirky yet ever-growing publishing concern, edited the annual "Best American Non-Required Reading" anthology and continued to do his creative work.

While his critics debate whether he's sold out, whether he's too ironic or too sentimental, whether there is too much realism in his fiction or not enough, Eggers has put his celebrity (and his money) behind a chain of nonprofit literacy centers, the first of which, 826 Valencia, opened in San Francisco's Mission District in 2002.

There are six cities with 826 centers, including Los Angeles.

On Monday night at a ceremony in Pittsburgh, Eggers was honored for this combination of creative work and community involvement with a 2007 Heinz Award in Arts and Humanities. Founded 13 years ago by Teresa Heinz, the Heinz Awards honor work in technology, the human condition, the environment, public policy and the arts.

At 37, Eggers is the youngest winner of a Heinz Award, which comes with a $250,000 prize. He is giving the money directly to the 826 centers.

"I think Dave has been a model of somebody wise enough to do good, other-centered things with his good fortune," says author George Saunders, recipient of a 2006 MacArthur Fellowship. "And the 826 centers strike me as being so right-hearted and efficient, just in terms of teaching kids about the importance of the word in our culture."

Typically, 826 centers include retail storefronts -- initially a zoning requirement for the San Francisco space -- which have become money-generating flights of fancy for the nonprofits. In San Francisco, students enter though a pirate supply store; in Brooklyn, a superhero store. Seattle offers space travel supply. Only 826LA, in Venice, doesn't have one; although it's near a school, it's not the kind of place a kid might stumble across.

But that's changing: Later this year, L.A. will become the first city to have two 826 centers when an additional branch opens at 1714 Sunset Blvd. Down the block from Payless Shoes, this tutoring center will be fronted by the Echo Park Time Travel Mart. It's exactly the kind of place a kid might walk into to finger a dinosaur egg, then wind up in a poetry workshop.

Tailored to needs

Each 826 raises funds locally. "The idea is that they're all self-sustaining because they're all largely independent," Eggers says. "Every 826 is heavily molded according to the needs of that particular neighborhood and then the city at large. So they're all very different, in a lot of ways."

They're also fun. The playfulness of the retail shops is echoed in the work of the literacy centers. In addition to standard tutoring, they emphasize creativity and storytelling. 826LA has published two books of student work, with hands-on help from Lakers Coach Phil Jackson and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. In a popular workshop, kids can make a book and take it home the same day.

As the centers nurture creativity in children, Eggers' work grows in interesting ways. He has just written his first screenplay -- for the Spike Jonze film of "Where the Wild Things Are," due out next year. His most recent book, "What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng," reframes the real life story of a Sudanese refugee through a fictional filter. "We needed to breathe life into the skeletal facts of the narrative," Eggers explains. "That's why we decided to call it a novel."

These efforts have tangible results; as far as "What Is the What" is concerned, "every book that was sold is a stack of bricks in Marial Bai. There's actually a one-to-one relationship," Eggers says. "The book looks like a brick and it pays for bricks."

Then there's that $250,000 from the Heinz Family Foundation. "What was really great about hearing about the Heinz Award," he says, "was immediately knowing that I could provide something for all the chapters in a way that I felt like I should."

At the ceremony Monday night, Eggers had a nervous energy that was disarming and boyish. "Oh, man, I hate going first," he said as he took the stage, breaking awards ceremony protocol. "I've never been so nervous." Wringing his hands behind the podium, he went on to thank his teachers. "Like it or not, I'm going to name as many as I can," he warned, and to warm laughter, he did.

A fitting tribute

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