Erin Frankel never really outgrew picture books.
That's not to say that the 1989 Oakcrest High School graduate's literary sensibilities haven't matured since she was 6, but rather that nestled among other literary masterpieces on her bookshelf will always be that worn and well-read copy of Shel Silverstein's "The Giving Tree."
This love of children's literature has meant a lifelong aspiration to write, but one that until recently, had gone unfulfilled.
"All the time I was writing stories, over the years, and tucking them into drawers and thinking, 'Sometime I'll have time to get to this,' and looking at it as a hobby and not having time to dedicate to launching a career," she said.
As an ESL teacher who splits her time between Spain and the United States, Frankel could find little time to make her writing any more than a hobby, but when she came up with the story of little Luisa, a wide-eyed, colorful dreamer who suppresses her vibrance due to bullying, she knew she had a story that needed to be told.
The Weird series, published in September by Free Spirit Publishing, spans three books, called "WEIRD!" "DARE!" and "TOUGH!" and tells the story of bullying from the perspective of the bullied, the bystander and the bully, respectively.
The idea for the first book came to Erin in 2008. As a friendly project, she enlisted the aid of college friend Paula Heaphy, a fashion designer for Gap who she knew had always aspired to illustrate children's books. It quickly became clear the partnership had legs.
Over the course of about a year, the pair hammered out a manuscript and the illustrations to go along with it, which they packaged and sent to publishers. In early 2011, they signed a three-book contract with Free Spirit. In addition to Luisa's story, they expanded those of Jayla, the bystander, and Sam, the bully, into complete books.
Frankel also picked the brains of a trio of expert consultants - her daughters, Gabriela, 14, Sofia, 12, and Kelsey, 9 - and their friends for advice on how to make the books more relatable for kids.
"It was a collaboration, really, between Paula and myself and the girls. They were like our in-house editors throughout the whole process," Frankel said. "We would go back and forth with their insight that they had and their friends had, and I think it gave a little more authenticity."
Beth Moriarty, Frankel's mother, said her daughter's pains to make the book accessible to kids shows in its simple, straightforward prose that manages to speak with kids on their own level without being patronizing.
"The books talk like a kid would talk to a kid," said Moriarty, of Mays Landing. "They don't sound like an adult talking. If somebody who was 10 read that book, they could relate to the book, as opposed to something that sounds like it came out of an adult's mouth."
That her daughter would tackle a subject like bullying came as little surprise to Moriarty, who said she recalls how when Frankel was a kid, she would often tell her mother about bullying she witnessed at school.
As a fairly popular student, Frankel often found herself a bystander, rather than a direct actor, in the bully/bullied dynamic.
"I think she goes back in her own life with being a bystander and having a difficult time in understanding what to do about that, knowing what's going on but feeling powerless, feeling afraid, and I think that the bystander is probably one of the most important people in there," Moriarty said.
Since the series was published, the positive reviews have been trickling in from critics and consumers alike. No matter the sales or stars it accumulates, though, Frankel said in her eyes, it's been a success from their very first review.
"Probably the most exciting moment when it all came together was the first piece of feedback we got on the website, from a mom saying she got these books for her daughter, she loves them, and she was having a hard time," Frankel said. "It all came together at that moment, a feeling that this is all worth it."
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