A very 90s ghost story…about the magic of literacy!

Edited 4/2/20

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Holy snapdragons, Bookwyrms!

It’s my 200th post!!!

In honor of this momentous occasion, I’ve decided to rrrrrrewind to one of my other favorite 90s kids’ shows, which inspired me to become a lifelong literacy activist.  Through the magic of YouTube, I’ve been able to re-watch all three seasons of…

Ghostwriter logo: bright blue background with green text, surrounded by headshots of Lenni, Tina, Gaby, Alex, Jamal, and Rob

Ghostwriter!

In 1992, Sesame Workshop released a totally happenin’ show about a group of pre-teens who run around Brooklyn, solving mysteries with the help of their secret supernatural friend, whom they brilliantly name Ghostwriter.  This lone headlight with floating eyebrows can only communicate by taking nearby letters and re-arranging them into words (using funky 90s Word Art!).

Er, except when he hacks into computers; then he can write whatever he wants.  He flies around the city, looking for words that are near missing people, or skims through long documents to find specific words.

He’s basically proto-Google.

Some of the mysteries focus on social issues like safe neighborhoods, chemical pollution, and homeless veterans.  Others are about less weighty topics like comic books and music videos.  And still others…are about leather-jacket-wearing monsters made of chewed-up purple bubble gum?

Close-up of the Slime Monster's wrinkly purple head, with bulging, bloodshot eyes.You’re welcome for the nightmares…

But the underlying theme in every story arc is the importance of written communication.  Any time a character has trouble expressing themselves, the others suggest writing his or her feelings down.  Often, the team has to figure out how to tailor their words for a specific audience, or deal with time and space constraints (like, literally, there’s a story arc involving time travel).

When Tina gets a job responding to fan mail for her favorite movie star, she learns to write the way the actress speaks, so fans won’t realize their beloved action hero uses a ghostwriter (see what I did there?) to answer their heartfelt letters.  And when the community garden gets contaminated, the team has to come up with clear, concise signs to keep people out.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but these stories must have inspired me when I was teaching college-level Rhetoric and Composition.  Our RhetComp classes focused on multiple types of literacy — not only academic, but news literacy, civic literacy, and workplace literacy.  You don’t write a Newsweek op-ed the same way you write a standard college essay.  In a college essay, you have to make your point right away and follow it up with reasons and details.  In a personal op-ed, you can bury the lead to build suspense, or to establish common ground before making a controversial point.

If I was teaching today, I might talk about how activists condense their messages into catchy tweets, or how teen magazines use abbreviations (OG, awk, BTS, OOTD) to make their readers feel like they’re part of a club with a secret language that other generations won’t understand.

Ghostwriter also speaks to me as someone who’s worked in libraries and watched kids get as excited as Hector when he receives his first library card.  And of course I get all the nostalgic feels when Gabby teaches him how to use a card catalog!

Side note:  Yes, the 90stalgia is strong with this one.  Watching these kids get so impressed by Jamal’s new modem and puzzle over a hacker’s ability to get into a computer system from outside the building is hiLARious.

Close-up of Jamal's computer screen, on which he's written: To be fair, this was how I greeted my first laptop.

And, yes, we can totally talk about how easy it is for these twelve-year-olds to convince the local police to follow Ghostwriter’s leads without asking any uncomfortable questions.  Heh heh, I don’t know where you kids got your information, but let’s all go to the abandoned parking garage to catch the painfully over-the-top villain!

Also, do big-time music execs often go head-hunting at middle school talent shows?  Er… sorry, Hanson 😉  And was eighth-grade prom really a thing?

But can we also talk about how great this 90s show is at portraying a diverse cast without making any of the characters feel like tokens or stereotypes?  Everyone on the team feels like an individual with unique interests and styles.  Their cultures and ethnicities are important to them, but they’re allowed to have many more facets than that.

Or how the Very Special Drug Episode features a guy who nicknames all his basketball plays after fairy tales and nursery rhymes?

Or how this show was apparently my first introduction to David Bowie!?!?!  In Part One of “Don’t Stop the Music,” Lenni’s friend Sally helps her through a case of songwriter’s block by suggesting she use Bowie’s cut-up technique!

Overall, Ghostwriter is an empowering show about the magic of words, and it’s just as fun to watch today as it was back then.

You can find most of the episodes in IBeGhostwriter’s YouTube account (just an fyi: the Slime Monster episodes are numbered wrong, and you’ll have to search for episodes 1 and 2 elsewhere).

I’ll leave you with episode 2 of the Slime Monster arc (ignore the title), just so you can see the hilariously creepy literacy PSA at the start.  I also highly recommend this very 90s Katie Couric special that appeared before Season 3 (again, ignore the title). 😀

Happy New Year!

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