What’s it about and what’d I think?
Frindle by Andrew Clements is about a boy who causes a phenomenon when a dictionary-obsessed teacher gives him a project on etymology and he ends up replacing the word ‘pen’ with the word ‘frindle.’ It’s Andrew Clements’ first book, and arguably his best one.
Having read it for the first time many years ago, I was very surprised by how fast-paced it is. While that is probably appealing to young and reluctant readers, for me it was slightly offputting how quickly one plot point was rushed to the next. However, overall Frindle is a very interesting story about how ideas spread and how powerful they are. I particularly like the way Clements wrote Mrs. Granger, as she avoided the irritating black and white villain role that many JF books (and, honestly, most of Clements’ later work) cling to. I also greatly enjoyed the discussion of language and the ways that it informs the ways we can and do think.
I did enjoy the book, which is somewhat impressive as there is a part of me that resents Andrew Clements for the disaster that was the book club discussion of No Talking. Pro tip: if you have an immature group of kids, don’t pick a book that can be easily misinterpreted to mean “disrespect is creative and cool and if you’re disrespectful long enough people will come around and agree with you.”
Remember, my discussion starters do reference the end and therefore are not spoiler-free. Also, feel free to use these questions in your own book club.
- Discuss Nick as a character. How would you characterize Nick? What do you think of the initial description of Nick as a character who would not be listed among the smartest, best, or worst students at his school (1)? What impression did you get about Nick from that description? Was your first impression accurate? If not, why not? What sort of list would you put Nick on?
- Did Frindle make you think about language differently? What is language? Do you agree that “Clear thinking requires a command of the English language” (11)? How is having an advanced vocabulary related to being a clear thinker? Is it possible to reflect on ideas when you do not have the requisite language and vocabulary to express those ideas? Discuss Mrs. Granger’s letter, in which she writes: “So many things have gone out of date. But after all these years, words are still important. Words are still needed by everyone. Words are used to think with, to write with, to dream with, to hope and pray with” (100). What makes a word “real?” How does language evolve? Consider new words like “humblebrag,” “selfie,” or “photobomb,” which did not exist a few decades ago but which are now in common usage. Who or what gives words meaning? If you are familiar with Ferdinand de Saussure and/or semiology, compare the theory of sign, signifier, and signified with the study of language as presented in
- Chatham says that “there have to be standards” when it comes to language (52). Where is the line between appropriate and inappropriate words? Why are some words appropriate for some settings but not for others? Consider slang words and colloquialisms as well as “bad words.” Consider words that are perceived as highbrow such as “shall” or “hitherto.” Who decides that some words are better/more formal/fancier than others? How does a word’s history and etymology affect its usage? Why are some words used by certain groups but not by others? Consider both groups such as nationalities and smaller, more personal groups such as families or circles of friends. Are there words or phrases that have different meanings in different settings? How does the hierarchy of words affect communication and language as a whole?
- Judy Morgan writes in her article that “Nick Allen masterminded this plot that cleverly raises issues about free speech and academic rules” (68). How is frindle a debate about free speech? How does it challenge academic rules? To what degree do you agree with the use of the words “masterminded” and “plot?” Do you think Nick masterminded the frindle incident as a way to challenge authority? If not, does it matter? Which is more important, the intent behind an action or the result of the action?
- Discuss the way that the frindle incident grows. How and why does the word become such a phenomenon? Which characters in the book are responsible for the growth of the story? How might things have gone without Mrs. Granger playing the villain? Without Judy Morgan to run the original story? Without Alice Lunderson to bring it to the national stage? Without Bud Lawrence to trademark and monetize the word? How does something grow from an idea to a tangible thing? At what point does “frindle” become real?
- Nick briefly struggles with the “price” of being a hero? What is the price? How does Nick’s newfound celebrity change him? What are the repercussions of fame, both for Nick specifically and for famous people generally? Discuss Nick’s mother’s warning to Nick about the reporters: “these reporters are just looking for a quick story that will make some excitement. But you have to stay here and live in this town. So mind your Ps and Qs” (75). How does Nick’s regular life change as a result of his newfound celebrity? How does it stay the same?
Discuss Mrs. Granger as a character. What characterizes her? What is Nick’s first impression of her? What is the reader’s? What sort of a character is she? In her letter to Nick, Mrs. Granger writes “I have chosen to be the villain” (99, my emphasis). How does this line change your impression of her, or does it? Discuss the different roles that people play, both in fiction and in real life. By virtue of being a work of fiction, does a story like Frindle need a villain? Is it significant that Mrs. Granger only plays the role of the villain? Narratively, what role does she play? Once again, discuss motivation. Is Mrs. Granger Frindle’s antagonist because of her actions, or is she something else? An antihero? A mentor figure? How might the novel be different if Mrs. Granger had actually opposed Nick and frindle?
- What do you think of Clements’ writing style? Consider the fast pace of the narrative, the revolving focus (one-off characters like Bud, Judy, and Alice are given perspective chapters despite being absent for the rest of the book), and the occasional direct address to the reader (pg. 93: “that would delay the end of this story”). How might the story be different if Clements had used language differently? In a novel about language, how important is the language used? What would you say Frindle is primarily about? Is it about Nick? The word frindle? Something else? If you have read any of Clements’ other novels, compare them to Frindle. What similarities are there? Discuss the various roles and plotlines that are recycled throughout his work. How is Frindle different?
- Discuss the word frindle. What is it? How did Nick get it to catch on? Why do you think people were so enthusiastic about the new word? Why did Nick choose to replace the word pen directly rather than creating a completely new word/concept? Is it significant that the central item in the novel is a pen, which is used to produce language and communication?