“Get a pencil and your casebook out.” So began each episode of Ghostwriter, the brilliant children’s serial drama that ran on PBS from 1992 to 1995 on the strength of its simple premise: Viewers helped solve mysteries ranging from stolen backpacks to strange illnesses with the assistance of an enigmatic spirit that re-arranged letters and words into clues only visible to kids. Every episode, the show’s leads—Jamal, Lenni, Alex, Tina, Rob, and Gaby—would de-code the Ghostwriter’s messages to stop crime, make discoveries, or help their families and communities. Shot mostly in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, the episodes were full of brownstones, bodegas, and people dressed in classic ’90s fashion. And, since the kids could only interact with the phantom by writing or typing, the series made for very literary television.
Like the kids on Ghostwriter, I was in middle school in the early 1990s and had my own marble notebook—one full of science fiction and sports stories that I was too embarrassed to show anyone but my family. I watched shows like The Twilight Zone and Tales from the Darkside, because I liked how sometimes even the smallest revision to reality could spin lives out of control. But those shows were clearly made for an older audience, while the equally compelling Ghostwriter starred kids like me—kids who wanted to create and share stories, who hunted for puzzles and codes in the mundane world. The series showed me the full richness of language—as a tool for social change, a way to create art, and a means of connecting with others—and ensured writing would remain a significant part of my life to this day.