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King or Queen for a Day


By James Knutila

Published Jul 1, 2017 8:00 AM

From Rhinopolis to Sophie-Topia, kids at a Hammer Museum workshop created their own countries.

Photos by Ted Catanzaro.

Hana, an 8-year-old from Los Angeles, has created her own country from scratch. She has drawn the map, designed the flag and written the laws.

As the president of her country, Hana has implemented some basic rules: Littering is against the law, as is stealing.

From there, things get a little more specific to Hana’s tastes. In her country, everything is made of fresh sushi. In fact, she points out, the name of her nation is Eating Sushi (Yummy!).

Hana created her country at a recent workshop for kids at the Hammer Museum, “King or Queen for a Day.” The event was organized by local writing and tutoring nonprofit 826LA, which hosts a free event at the Hammer once a month.

This particular workshop was led by J. Ryan Stradal, a writer whose debut novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, landed on The New York Times best-seller list in 2015. The workshop was inspired in part by a similar workshop that Stradal attended when he was 12.

“As a creative kid growing up in a small Midwestern town, I didn’t always have a lot of creative outlets,” Stradal recalls. “I quickly realized how important those were to me. And how important those adults who took time out of their lives to give me creative projects were to me. It seemed like the least I could do for a kid who lives in my community.”

As with most 826LA workshops, students are encouraged to use their imaginations and develop their creative voices. As Stradal told the students at the Hammer, “With writing, there’s nothing you cannot do. There’s no realm or world that’s impossible.”

And in fact, there was no shortage of ideas in this unconventional nation-building exercise.

In Bryson’s country, Rhinopolis, every citizen must wake up at 4:30 a.m. every day, and if they want to travel anywhere, they are required to ride a rhinoceros to get there.

When asked how many people live in her country, Sophie-Topia, Sophie describes her immigration policy as “however many people come and go.” Those who do live in Sophie-Topia live large — every citizen is afforded a 10-acre house. The president, Sophie, lives even larger, in a castle the size of Mount Everest.

The country of Cloverville, created by Julia, includes a museum made entirely of rainbows. Everyone in Cloverville is required to go outside at least once a day, and to make a new friend. There is also a sizable population of leprechauns who ride tigers, and — according to Julia — most of the leprechauns are nice.

826LA has two locations, in Echo Park and Mar Vista, where students can receive after-school tutoring, go on field trips and participate in workshops in which they collaborate on writing projects and get to see their work published. Volunteers also help with writing-related activities at local schools.

A volunteer asks Julia, the president of Cloverville, if she would like to be president of a real country one day — the U.S., for instance. Julia pauses, giving the idea a moment of serious consideration. Her expression brightens into a beaming smile.

“Yeah! Maybe!” she says.