“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.
It helped that the characters in Ghostwriter seemed chosen for their love of words. They were all budding poets, songwriters, gamers, trivia aficionados, and mystery lovers, demonstrating that there are myriad ways to engage with language. A few minutes into the first episode, Lenni sounds her way through a handwritten rap, showing kids how language needs to be worked and controlled in order to achieve clarity. Her friend Alex reads detective novels, which are exciting but also help hone his decoding and storytelling skills. Although a passion for words comes naturally to these kids, the arrival of Ghostwriter causes them to seek even deeper meaning in language and use it to spur action—a lesson I took to heart as a young viewer.
In the arc for “To Catch a Creep,” Alex is running for student president of Zora Neale Hurston Middle School, and the episode begins with him writing a campaign statement. He reads a draft to Lenni and Jamal, but it’s short and general, and his friends are unimpressed. “It’s a start,” Jamal says, but Lenni is more honest: Alex needs to be specific, and talk about what he will actually accomplish for the school. Though Alex is at first defensive, together, the three kids begin workshopping his draft, showing viewers the possibilities of constructive criticism. The episode also unpacked the kind of unglamorous labor and teamwork that often goes into good writing.
In its own way, Ghostwriter modeled the steps of writing for me. In fact, it was the only series I can remember that actually dramatized the creative process so thoroughly. (The rest of the episode involves the creation of a campaign film, for which Alex and his friends decide to make a storyboard.) Whether I was creating an outlandish tale of time-travel or crafting a spin-off scene from Amazing Spider-Man, I could see that process—no matter how embarrassing, or time-consuming—came before product. I learned early to embrace that drafts are often very different than final versions, and that collaboration with peers and editors was not simply necessary, but an enjoyable part of the creative process.
For all its supernatural qualities, Ghostwriter often focused on the humbling idea that literature—an endeavor sometimes seen as elitist or inaccessible—is for everyone and can bring people closer together. In the “Into the Comics” episode, Rob goes to a poetry reading at the Fort Greene Youth Center. He sits rapt while listening to Double-T, a homeless man whose poem ends with the line “the emperor of the sidewalk’s true kingdom / is only mapped-out in his head,” a sly nod to the interior freedom language offers. Rob introduces himself to Double-T after the reading, and says what he liked most about the poem was that it felt “real.” Rob says he wants to be a writer (even though his father would prefer he play baseball), and Double-T offers to mentor him.
The true wisdom of the episode comes from Double-T—a man most in society would see as powerless, and who writes, reads, and sells his instant poems on a street corner. Rob is unhappy about his father’s overbearing attitude but doesn’t know how to communicate with him, so Double-T tells him to write down his thoughts because “it can help you figure out what you want to say.” He explains that it is better than simply talking because “you can work on it until you get it right.” Poetry wasn’t something that I really grasped as a middle-schooler, but I certainly understood what it meant to sometimes struggle to adequately say what I felt. The poem that Rob writes for his father isn’t an immediate fix, but it does help them understand each other better. With this arc, Ghostwriter also captured an idea familiar to many writers—that sometimes to arrive at an idea, you need to simply get the words out and not worry about how you’re going to get there. When, like Rob, I worry too much about perfectly capturing how I feel, the emotions fall flat on the page. I’ve learned that my best writing surprises me.
Because of its format and the complicated ideas it explored, Ghostwriter was nothing like the other children’s shows of the early 1990s. Created by the Children’s Television Workshop—the same production company that made Sesame Street—and staffed by veterans of MTV, Ghostwriter was a live-action, dramatic show with a diverse cast. Unlike fantastical series such as The Magic School Bus and Wishbone, Ghostwriter featured kids with real lives—they went to school and navigated complex relationships with friends and family. The problems they encountered were often quite weighty: vandalism, arson, computer hacking, drug addiction, homelessness, and poverty. But in dealing with these more mature subjects, the show also indicated that it took its audience seriously.
Children’s game shows like Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? or instructional shows like Bill Nye the Science Guy never kept my interest—I wanted stories. Fortunately, Ghostwriter distinguished itself a series focused on full narratives. Each storyline would stretch across several half-hour episodes, requiring commitment and focus from its young audience the way a novel might. But we were rewarded with deeper characters and more intrigue than the average show for preteens. With casebooks in hand, our viewing experience was far from passive, and sometimes extended out of our living rooms to the actual classroom: Around 20 million copies of the companion Ghostwriter magazine were sent to schools around the country, and activity booklets gave students the chance to re-write characters and storylines—an early introduction to fan-fiction.
The pilot episode perhaps best captures Ghostwriter’s literary ethos. While Jamal is searching for an old trunk in the basement with his father (Samuel L. Jackson) the ghost flies out of an open book and illuminates a word on the back of Jamal’s t-shirt. At first Jamal is unaware of the spirit, but he soon learns that the Ghostwriter communicates by collecting and animating letters that appears on various objects—books, clothing, signs—or projecting messages on his computer screen. From the start, Ghostwriter implied that we are surrounded by both mysteries and language—and that the two are inextricably connected. Ghostwriter wasn’t an escape to a foreign land; it was an escape into one’s own mind. It suggested the possibility of finding strangeness, suspense, and wonder within real life.
One riddle the characters themselves never solve is Ghostwriter’s identity. After the series ended, the writer Kermit Frazier revealed that Ghostwriter was a runaway slave “killed by slave catchers and their dogs as he was teaching other runaway slaves how to read in the woods.” Though viewers at the time wouldn’t have known this backstory, these tragic origins are also somehow fitting: During both his life and his existence as a spirit, Ghostwriter finds truth and freedom in words. He could have chosen to appear to anyone, but he picked a group of kids in Brooklyn—perhaps kids who needed to witness the transformative power of language most.
In an early episode of Ghostwriter, Jamal’s reaction to the Ghostwriter is an apt description of the series: “This is just weird enough to be really interesting.” Ghostwriter was about relatable kids who learned that their written words actually mattered. The show treated writing as both an internal and external act; a means of self-discovery and expression, as well as a necessary form of communication. A little weird, very smart, and sometimes pretty scary, Ghostwriter was the type of show that not only made me want to become a writer, but also revealed how faith in the unknown could light up the world around me.