By Erin Frankel and Paula Heaphy, author and illustrator of the Weird series and Nobody!
When Tim Francis, counselor at York and Jefferson Elementary Schools in Middlebury, Indiana, reached out to thank us for creating the Weird series, we had no idea that it would be the beginning of a unique student-centered anti-bullying project. The seasoned, award-winning counselor explained how the emotional connection that students felt with the characters had made the series “the most requested and talked about books” he had ever seen. Tim felt that the illustrations brought the characters to life and noted that the books had sparked a change in his students’ behavior, with many more kids calling out bullying.
After Tim’s students shared suggestions for future books, we came up with a plan: Why not have the students create their own books and keep the story going? With the help of York Elementary School librarian Paige Palmer—and the creativity and enthusiasm of the third-grade authors and illustrators—Tim turned the Picture Book Project into a reality. The final result? Two fully illustrated picture books on bullying and a lot of proud kids. We asked Tim and Paige to share their process so that others might add the Picture Book Project to their anti-bullying toolkits.
How did the Weird series play a role in the project?
Tim: The Weird series engages students in a way that made me think, “I’ve got to do more with this!” Taking kids through the Weird series gets them excited about thinking in a different way. Unmotivated, disengaged students who never raise their hands all year in class and struggle to pay attention have their hands up waving in the air, begging to be called on! The students really listened and seemed to connect with the characters and situations and relate them to happenings in their own experiences. After we finished going through the Weird series, we read Nobody! and the students wanted more stories!
Paige: The kids were really excited to write a story, especially when they found out it was going to be sent to the author and illustrator of the Weird series. As far as the characters were concerned, the kids knew each character from the series well, and when we started discussing what the book was going to be about, they would reference characters from the different Weird series books in regard to a situation they were trying to explain. I think they surprised themselves with their ability to tell a story. A lot of them asked if we could do it again because they had so much fun.
How did you schedule time to work on the project?
Tim: I have the students for classroom guidance every other week. I have five third-grade classrooms, so I took one session in each room for writing and one for drawing.
Paige: Here at York, we worked on the story during our library time. Each class meets for library once a week for 30 minutes. I divided the story between three classes: One class would write the beginning, one class would write the middle, and one class would write the ending.
How did you get the collaborative process started?
Tim: I pulled up a Word document on the smartboard, and kids started raising their hands and sharing ideas. My job was to capture the story that was taking shape. We wrote and edited together as we went.
Paige: I hooked up a laptop to my smartboard so that the kids could see what I was typing as they told me what to type. I am a big supporter of letting kids be as creative as they can be, so we “popcorned” out ideas and sentences as we went.
How did students decide on the main characters and the plot?
Tim: I met for lunch and conversation with six students who seemed to put the most effort into a questionnaire I used at the end of a classroom lesson. Together we brainstormed the idea for the title, and everyone wanted Emily to be in the book. Other characters came into play in whole-class instruction. One student suggested the name Jeff as a code word for our school, Jefferson. Another student suggested the name Ty as code word for the Tigers (our school mascot). That was impressive to me. I never would have thought of that!
Paige: We did a recap of the roles in a bullying situation (bullying student, targeted student, bystander), who those characters are in the Weird series, and what each character’s motivations and resolutions were. Then we did a rough outline of what we wanted our story to be and went from there. I wrote down all the characters and ideas we brainstormed so that each class could see what the other classes were thinking.
What role did you play in guiding students in the process?
Tim: My role was facilitating respectful discussion, which was not difficult at all, and limiting the amount of characters and events that occurred. It seemed it would have been easy for it to turn into a full-length novel!
Paige: I think my biggest role in this was guiding the kids and keeping them on track. As far as the story itself was concerned, I let the kids just flow with it. Each class wrote their part at the same time as the other classes. I made sure to read what the other classes had written to each class as I worked with them so that they had an idea of where the other classes were taking the story.
Once the stories were written, how did you organize the illustration process?
Tim: Once the story was complete, I printed it out and cut it into sections. In the next guidance time, I read the story and asked for students to volunteer to draw a picture that could go with that sentence or two. I told them not all pictures would make it in the book. Each strip of paper with words had a number, and students put that number on the back of their drawing so that I could match up the drawings to the story sections later. One day after school, I took the pictures where it appeared kids had taken the most time and put in the most effort and scanned them on our copier. I then copied and pasted them into a Word document to finish up the book. Some kids said they couldn’t draw. I asked if they could draw a bus, or some diamonds for design. So everyone felt they could do something.
Paige: Once we finished the story, I divided it up onto pages the kids could illustrate, then divided the kids into groups so they could work on the illustrations together. It truly was a group effort! Illustrating took another two to three weeks.
What was the biggest challenge in the process? Did anything surprise you?
Tim: Trying to incorporate as many students as possible, though it really wasn’t that big of a challenge for us. I felt strongly about the importance of the project, so it was easy to make time for it. We all make time for what is important to us. The students surprised me with the amount of ownership of the project they showed and how well they listened and worked together. I was really encouraged by the respect they showed for each other’s ideas and the way they wanted everyone to be involved and included. They wanted everyone to have a voice.
Paige: Time was the biggest challenge! Especially since I still wanted the kids to be able to find and check out books during their library time as well. I found it so interesting to see the different characters the kids came up with and the situations they put the characters in. I think the one that was the most profound for me was how they chose to have the principal not believe the kids who were getting bullied. So often we tell kids, “Tell an adult! Tell a teacher! Tell your principal!” But what happens if those people don’t believe you? It seemed like a very real concern to students. I was also impressed that they chose not to get the character who was bullying in trouble for something he didn’t do, even though it would have been easy to do so. Kids never cease to amaze me!
We asked the student authors and illustrators what they thought of the project. Here’s what some of them had to say:
- “This is a good activity to help students know more about how bullying affects everyone. Writing about it helps you in the real world. Writing helps express your experience.”
- “You learn how bullying makes people feel and take time to think about it more. It helps you understand you can stand up and say no.”
- “Don’t be afraid you can’t write a book. Encourage each other. Don’t ever give up.”
- “This is a really good story!”
You can read and listen to the full stories at www.theweirdseries.com. Let’s keep this story of kindness going!
Erin Frankel has a master’s degree in English education and is passionate about parenting, teaching, and writing. She taught ESL in Madrid, Spain, before moving to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with her family. Erin knows firsthand what it feels like to be bullied, and she hopes her stories will help children stay true to who they are and help put an end to bullying. She believes in the power of kindness and is grateful to be able to spread that message through her work. In her free time, you’ll find Erin hiking in the woods with her family and doggie, Bella, or getting some words down on paper wherever and whenever she can.
Paula Heaphy is a print and pattern designer in the fashion industry. She’s an explorer of all artistic mediums from glassblowing to shoemaking, but her biggest love is drawing. She jumped at the chance to illustrate her friend Erin’s story, having been bullied herself as a child. As the character of Luisa came to life on paper, Paula felt her path in life suddenly shift into focus. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she hopes to use her creativity to light up the hearts of children for years to come.
Free Spirit books by Erin and Paula:
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Awesome story! I’m so proud of our third graders and the amazing staff members at both schools.