Rachel Van Gelder, 12, has started her own newspaper and the entire neighborhood is involved. In late May, the first issue of The Hoot, a newspaper covering the events and personalities of Mercer Terrace Drive on the South end, went to press. Van Gelder personally delivered the 11-page, full-color publication — named after the owl she hears hooting at night — to more than a dozen neighborhood families.
Since then, readership has grown. So much, in fact, that Van Gelder is switching to an online version of The Hoot to save paper and printing costs.
The 12-year-old publisher and her team of neighborhood writers, ages 7 to 10, are nearly finished with The Hoot’s second edition, due out before September. According to Van Gelder, the issue has more content, more artwork and a stronger neighborhood voice.
“Our latest issue is a bit bigger because now we have more ideas. The first edition was just a warm-up,” Van Gelder said, adding that circulation has jumped from 10 households to nearly 20 since May.
The idea to create a neighborhood newspaper was a natural one, given Van Gelder’s outgoing personality. Last March, she and her younger brother, Max, were the new kids on the block. Compared with the suburban street they moved from in Missouri, Van Gelder found her new Mercer Terrace surroundings, well, not as “neighborly.”
“We were in the suburbs before too, but it was a bit more neighborly there. In Missouri, a lot of the kids where we lived were the same age. All the neighbors knew each other,” she said.
Eager to make a few friends, open closed doors and share some worthwhile stories, Van Gelder decided to start a neighborhood newspaper. And she wasn’t going to do it alone.
“That’s a huge part of it — getting to know our neighbors and getting all the neighborhood kids together,” the seventh-grader said.
Ready to meet the residents of Mercer Terrace Drive, Van Gelder went door-to-door last spring with news of her idea. At each house she dropped off a pamphlet introducing The Hoot and asking neighbors if they would be interested in receiving a copy or — better yet — contributing. If residents were keen on the idea, all they had to do was drop a “yes” reply into Van Gelder’s mailbox. In total, the young publisher received 10 “yeses.”
“We actually met a lot of new kids. And now they’re our writers,” Van Gelder said. “We don’t have any adults. A lot of the kids are pretty young.”
The Hoot’s first editorial team numbered six children, Rachel and Max included. This month, nearly all of the writers are busy on the newspaper’s second issue. For the past several weeks, Van Gelder has been rounding up as many staff members that she can for weekly meetings in her living room. Once assembled, the young writers plan their stories and pitch new ideas for The Hoot. Comic strips and poetry, Van Gelder said, are popular topics.
“The next edition will feature of all Mercer Island’s parks and beaches,” Van Gelder revealed. “And we’ll also have some sports, comics and a section on the neighborhood’s history. One neighbor up the street has lived here since the ‘70s.”
Indeed, Van Gelder’s efforts to unite her neighborhood through The Hoot have been rewarded. On top of making a handful of new friends, the 12-year-old has stirred a buzz of energy up and down the block. It is not uncommon for neighbors to knock on Van Gelder’s door with a story idea, or drop a kind note into her mailbox.
“It’s going really well. We’ve gotten to know a ton of people in the area; almost everyone up and down the street,” she said. “They’ve given input into what they think would be good columns on different topics, like nature or food.”
The editor’s mother, Suzie Dintzis, said she was impressed both by her daughter’s first edition of The Hoot and the neighborly intentions behind it.
“When we first came here, we didn’t know our neighbors,” Dintzis said. “It’s a different community than in Missouri. People have lived here for a long time, but they didn’t know each other.”
And that is exactly what Van Gelder wants to change.
“We have people come to us and say they enjoy the paper and say hello,” she said, a half-moon grin across her face.
Although the next issue of The Hoot will be distributed to neighbors via e-mail — “The first issue used up all our ink!” Dintzis said with a laugh — the paper’s overall look, content and community feel will stay the same. Neighbors are still welcome to respond with a knock at Van Gelder’s door; children to call with a story idea. And anyone, from the top of S.E. 73rd Place to the bottom of Mercer Terrace Drive, is invited to stop by and say hi.
“We want to do this as long as we can,” Van Gelder said of publishing The Hoot. “It’s just really, really fun.”