Synopsis: Is Nick Allen a troublemaker? He really just likes to liven things up at school — and he’s always had plenty of great ideas. When Nick learns some interesting information about how words are created, suddenly he’s got the inspiration for his best plan ever…the frindle. Who says a pen has to be called a pen? Why not call it a frindle? Things begin innocently enough as Nick gets his friends to use the new word. Then other people in town start saying frindle. Soon the school is in an uproar, and Nick has become a local hero. His teacher wants Nick to put an end to all this nonsense, but the funny thing is frindle doesn’t belong to Nick anymore. The new word is spreading across the country, and there’s nothing Nick can do to stop it.
For the Writer: What has put this one hundred or so page book on the National Education Association’s Teacher’s Top 100 Books for Children and Elizabeth Bird’s Top 100 Chapter Book Poll results care of School Library Journal and has earned the chapter book more than a dozen more state awards? What has jettisoned this tiny book to sales over 2.5 million? In short, it is a little book with a big idea.
Every writer, including this author, has heard a writing teacher quip, ‘Ideas are a dime a dozen, it is what the writer does with the hunch that makes the story worthy. Respectfully, I disagree, sort of.
Ideas are valuable. That’s why we have trademarks, patents and copyright. Ask an advertising guru what he or she thinks of ideas. He or she will tell you the world spins with ideas. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Great Idea! “And God said, ‘Let there be light.” Wow! Another great idea. Sure there is work involved. “And on the seventh day God rested from all his work. I get it. Ten percent theory, ninety percent weary! Writers have to put these great ideas to work. How did the author of Frindle, Andrew Clements put it. He said he wondered, “What would happen if a kid started using a new word, and other kids really liked it, but his teacher didn’t?”
The story that makes Frindle hangs on a germinal idea. Think of a mobile. It must balance to work. Every added element can throw off the balance. The characters, their relationships, the subplots, the language; any element has the potential to upset the apple cart. But not in Frindle.
Let’s continue our examination of the book to try to uncover the elements which Clements employed in Frindle to flesh out his germinal idea.
1. In Frindle the sentences are short and economical. Even Clement’s character descriptions are short and to the point:
She was small, as teachers go. There were some fifth graders who were taller. But Mrs. Granger seemed like a giant. It was her eyes that did it. They were dark gray, and if she turned them on full power, they would make you feel like a speck of dust. Her eyes could twinkle and laugh, too, and kids said she could crack really funny jokes. But it wasn’t her jokes that made her famous. Clements terse prose in his protaganist’s point of view contains nothing outstanding, no clever verbs, or jarring sentence structures. He even uses common cliché similes like, like a giant, speck of dust and twinkle and laugh. Clement tells the story in simple, everyday, accessible language.
2. Clements has supplied his idea of an invented word that gains a life of its own with an exquisitely obvious antagonist. Though Mrs. Granger comes with a twist, she provides enough resistance to Nick’s idea to balance the scales. Add a dash of bureaucratic meddling from a pushy principal and the story’s antagonistic element is amply supplied.
3. Clements keeps his plot under control. There were plenty of opportunities for the subplots in this story to gain momentum and derail the simple plot. Georges Polti suggests that the body of literature as we know it comprises a mere thirty-six dramatic situations. Polti’s 36 Dramatic Situations Frindle is number 9: a bold leader; an object; an adversary, and that’s Frindle in a nutshell. Boy leader has big idea. Idea takes off. Boy copes with growing opposition. Clements could have expanded Nick’s relationship with his partner in crime, Janet Fisk. He didn’t. He could have turned Bud Lawrence into a greedy wretch, who exploits Nick. He didn’t. He could have drawn his protagonist as greedy and spiteful. He didn’t. He could have gone on and on with the whole freedom of speech thing. He didn’t. Every theme, every subplot orbited the ruling idea: An invented word once it gains traction is unstoppable.
4. Happy endings. In general readers love them. I do. This story could rival It’s a Wonderful Life with its ingredient portion of high fructose corn syrup.
5. Point of View is a compelling feature in any story. Clement narrates this story from Nick’s POV and the reader is on the mischievous charmer’s side from the beginning. It’s Nick’s story and he tells it, simply, in his own idiom, from his perspective, as easily and un-self-consciously as riding a bike. And Frindle is a great ride.
This book will stick around for a long time. It may never pull up a chair and have fellowship with the meatier classics, but it does give a simple and profound treatment of what is often a complicated topic. As far as inspiration verses perspiration goes, I am divided. Frindle is nothing without its germinal idea and classic plot, yet it was fashioned by a disciplined artist into the story the idea inspired and required to make it a classic.
Writer’s! Pick up your pens!