Author of the 2.5 Million-Copy Bestseller FRINDLE
Q: Where did the idea for Frindle come from?
A: I was talking to a bunch of first and second grade kids one autumn afternoon in 1990 at the JFK Elementary School in Middletown, Rhode Island. It was shortly after my book Big Al had been published, and that was one of the first times I had been a visiting author.
I was teaching a little about the way words work, and about what words really are. I was trying to explain to them how words only mean what we decide they mean. They didn’t believe me when I pointed to a fat dictionary and told them that ordinary people like them and like me had made up all the words in that book—and that new words get made up all the time.
Pulling a pen from my pocket I said, “For example, if all of us right here today said we would never call this thing a “pen” again, and that from now on we would call it a . . . frindle." I just made up the word frindle, and they all laughed because it sounded funny. And then I said, "No, really— if enough other people start to use our new word, then in five or ten years, frindle could be a real word in the dictionary.”
There was a boy in the back of the room who didn’t believe me. He frowned and shook his head, and said, “Nah—that’s impossible. You can’t just make up a new word and have it go into the dictionary. No way.”
So I said, “OK. There’s a little convenience store down the street from the school where you go sometimes and buy candy, right? So walk in there after school today, put 79 cents on the counter, look right at the person behind the counter and say, ‘I need to buy a frindle.’ Let's say it's a lady working there. Well, she's going to look at you like you’re crazy, but say the word again—'I need a frindle, you know, a frindle.’ Say it two or three more times, and then help her out. Point at the plastic container of pens and say, 'There they are!' Next day, have a different kid go in the store and ask the same lady for a frindle. She might remember, and she might not. But what's going to happen on the fifth day when the fifth different kid walks in there and asks that lady for a frindle? What’s that lady behind the counter going to do?”
Well, that boy in back of the room was right with me, and he got the idea—I could see it in his face.
He blurted out, “She’s going to say, 'Do you want a blue one or a black one?'!”
Then I asked the boy, "Why is she going to say that?"
And the boy said, "Because for her, frindle's going to be a real word now!"
And it was true: For that lady in that store, frindle would be a real word. It would mean “pen.” And if that lady could learn it, why not other people too?
The kids loved that idea, and for a couple of years I told that same story every time I went to visit and talk at a school or a library. Then one day as I was sitting at home, sifting through my life, looking for a story idea, I wondered, 'What would happen if a kid started using a new word, and other kids really liked it, but his English teacher didn’t?'
So the idea for the book was born—and I even used that bit about the kids in the convenience store as part of the novel.