Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Frindle, by Andrew Clements

This book was recommend to me long, long ago and I finally stumbled across a copy. I never did find it at the library, but found a copy at Goodwill on a weekly shopping trip so I quickly chucked it in the cart. It's a quick read so I finished it immediately. Although I read it fast I have yet to come to a conclusion over whether or not I liked it. Because it's a quick read - I'd say read it for yourself and you can form your own conclusions well enough.

This is the story about a fifth grader named Nick who is something of a manipulative class clown. His English teacher assigns him some homework which sparks some inner curiosity about how words come to have the meaning that they do. His teacher, Mrs. Granger, tells him words have the meaning that they do "because we say so." (More or less -that's what she says.) As an experiment, Nick tries to change the word "pen" to "frindle." (Hence the title of the book.) Soon all the fifth graders in the school are referring to their pens as frindles. A local entrepreneur decides to market the word. The media catches the hype and the word frindle explodes.

On the one hand, I reckon I can see how this book would have "educational appeal." I can see that this book is clearly intended to cause children to think about the words they use. It can be viewed as promoting free thought and imagination. For those reasons, I liked the book.

However, I'm on the fence with this because of the portrayal of Mrs. Granger and the school princpal's interactions with Nick's parents.

Mrs. Granger asks Nick to please refer to pens as pens (because she's a good school teacher who cares about words and the origins of them). She doesn't mean to kill Nick's creativity; she simply wants to maintain control of her class. The fifth graders get a whiff of power when they discover they can give the grown-ups grief by banding together and repeatedly using the word to the frustration of Mrs. Granger. Sure, the author prescribed an attitude to the kids as being ones who were given some information in class that they wished to explore to the limits (to some degree indicating that this was the correct thing for them to have done). Clements even leaves Mrs. Granger compliant and supportive in the end. However, during the interim period this is a story about some fifth graders who were challenging authority.

Enter the principal of the school, who goes to Nick's parents asking them to intervene and ask Nick to comply with Mrs. Granger's request to use the word "pen" and restore the fellowship between Mrs. Granger and the students in the classroom. Instead of calling on their son to rise above the situation and act respectfully towards the request (i.e., authority) of his teacher (be her opinion right or wrong) they defend him. They DO ask him if he's willing to comply and revert to using the proper word but he says: "I didn't do anything wrong." And they agree.

But I don't. I think that the idea of encouraging children to explore the world is important. I totally support that and any book (fiction or otherwise) that promotes that. However, I also support the Biblical design of authority and because of that I'm having a hard time plugging this book as top notch. Order has to be maintained somewhere, esp. in large groups of people. It can't be "every man for himself" or else the world would cease to function (and almost did in this book).

I'm NOT ready to brand this book as bad. On the contrary, I think it's most excellent in pointing out a "gray" area (that really shouldn't be gray, in my humble, ever-so-humble opinion) as a prompter between parents and children (teachers and students?) as to proper boundaries both between age and position and for respect and admiration of history. That is to say nothing of social etiquette. I don't really think that Clements had all this in mind when writing this story but that's what I drew from it.

The story is painted in such a way as to present young Nick as a hero of sorts. But I don't think he was, really. I think instead I would root for Mrs. Granger being the character deserving of the most sympathy. She taught her class well and stood by her beliefs. In the end, we see her true motives and desires but it wasn't written in such a way as to be very convincing (to me) that Mrs. Granger didn't regret the hoopla surrounding the battle that was frindle.

This book has excellent lessons but it demands a lot of thought. Therefore I'm not sure if I'd recommend it for kids unless I though they could understand the character issues involved and would be willing to talk through them. Again, this isn't exactly what Clements was shooting for. He'd probably like me to say "cute story! highly imaginative!" I feel I would be remiss if I did that. It IS that to some degree. It is also so much more.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

Thanks for the review. My daughter read it for school last year, in third grade. I didn't know much about it until you filled me in. I'm curious what my daughter's take on it is because we've talked a lot about how words only mean what they do b/c someone gave them that definition. Even bad words aren't bad in and of themselves, what's wrong is the meaning we give to them. I'm definitely going to follow up with my daughter.

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