Frindle by Andrew Clement (1996)
Nick Allen is one of those genius trouble-makers good teachers love and bad teachers don’t know what to do with. He questions just about everything his teachers say, especially stuff taught by teachers he dislikes for all the usual, stupid reasons fifth-graders find to dislike even the best of teachers. Convinced he is smarter than his English teacher Mrs. Granger, he asks an endless series of questions about words and their meanings as one of those delay tactics students think their teachers don’t recognize.
Mrs. Granger uses Nick’s questions to get him to learn even more than his obedient classmates, and when he realizes he’s being played, he comes up with one of his best plans ever: he convinces his classmates to start using made-up words for common objects, such as FRINDLE to mean PEN. Mrs. Granger wages a war on this practice, defending the existing lexicon while Nick challenges the establishment by wielding arguments about usage, context, and meaning.
The war escalates, and soon the whole town is involved. Administrators don’t seem to know what to do; the local media jumps aboard, and everyone takes a side in what becomes an absurd, runaway battle that escapes Nick’s or Mrs. Granger’s control.
Andrew Clements has a great idea for a story here, but in aiming his novel at middle-grade elementary students, he shoots a little too low, probably underestimating his readers’ ability to deal with irony and inference. He has a tendency to over-explain things, and then he resolves his story in very Sesame Street ways, tipping over into over-sentimentality. Young readers probably won’t complain, but they should. They should see themselves in the Nick role, smart enough to understand this story without any hand-holding, and Clements should push them in that direction. Instead, his story assumes his readers are in the middle of the pack, which will make for appealing reading. The result is something popular where it could have been something popular and great.
I was carrying this book in the cafeteria line at the community college where I work, and the college student who took my money said, “Oh, I loved that book when I was a kid!” There’s something to be said for this, so Clements is surely on to something. And it probably means nothing that the student added, “I can’t remember anything about it, but I remember I loved reading it,” but rather than be disappointed in the book’s short-lasting resonance, I just nodded and said, “I get it.”
2 stars out of 5.