Erin Frankel and Paula Heaphy
Erin Frankel and Paula Heaphy have been friends since their college days at Syracuse University in New York. Erin currently lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with her husband and three daughters. She has an M.A. in English education and is passionate about teaching and writing. Paula lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is a print and pattern designer for Gap. Erin and Paula have stayed in touch over the years and across the miles, and brought their talents together to create the Weird series—Weird!, Dare!, and Tough!
Q: What prompted you to write the Weird series?
Erin: As a parent and a teacher, I am very much aware of the pain and struggles that children face when it comes to bullying—and I can empathize, given my own childhood experiences with bullying. I’ve always wanted to write for children and couldn’t think of a better way to get kids thinking and talking about bullying from an early age than a picture book. I wrote these stories to help children feel prepared to stand up for what is right and stay true to who they are.
Paula: I was a really shy and awkward kid, so I was an easy target for the bullies in school. I often felt sick in the morning, in fear of how the day would unfold. Art was my escape. I would draw in my room for hours on end. I always had a calling to illustrate children’s books, but after years of working in the fashion industry, I had no clue where or how to begin. When Erin reached out to me with the Weird! manuscript, something resonated deep within me. Bringing these characters to life with Erin and her daughters was the most enriching experience of my life.
Q: What was the best part of developing the books?
Erin: The feeling that I might be able to make a difference for at least one child who is suffering from bullying. The hope that my stories might help children not only understand, but feel the power that words and actions can have on themselves and others. And, of course, collaborating with my lifelong friend, illustrator Paula Heaphy, as well as my three wonderful daughters, made this one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
Paula: The collaboration with Erin and her daughters, Gabriella, Sofia, and Kelsey, really opened me up creatively. They were my very own team of art directors. We were in different parts of the world but were so bound to our intention. I emailed them questions of how they saw the characters, they wrote back with their visions and I would send back sketches. They bubbled with ideas that added sparkle and magic to the process.
Juggling a full-time day job as a textile designer in fashion with illustrating the series was an extremely challenging time for me. Outside of sleeping, the work never ceased. Learning how to surrender and take criticism in stride were invaluable lessons. And the love and reactions I have received from the children in my life has nearly made my heart explode with joy.
The night I finished illustrating Dare!, I crawled into bed very late. As I lay awake staring up in the darkness, I saw stars. I thought I was seeing things. I rubbed my eyes, but there they were, buried under layers of ceiling paint glowing brightly—a little sea of shooting stars. Funny how I never noticed them in all the years I slept under them.
Q: What book(s) inspired you the most as a child?
Erin: Free to Be You and Me by Marlo Thomas & Friends. This book had a huge impact on me. I had the book and the record and loved to read and sing along to the stories and songs about feelings and diversity. As a child, people often referred to me as “sensitive” because my feelings got hurt easily or because I cried over little things. The books helped me understand that my feelings were okay. That it was all right to cry. That parents have feelings. That boys and girls really weren’t that different after all. I wanted to jump into the book’s theme song—into that “land where the children run free.” One of the first gifts I gave my own daughters was the book and CD.
I would also have to mention The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. I loved having that book read to me, and to this day I can’t get through it without getting teary-eyed. The tree was happy in giving, happy spending time with the boy he loved. “Come, Boy, sit down,” the tree beckons the boy. And for me there was always some connection between the boy sitting down with the tree and me sitting on my mom or dad’s lap having the book read to me. I guess I was sitting with my “giving tree,” feeling happy. And I sensed the tree was happy.
Paula: My favorite heroine was, and still is, Pippi Longstocking. She piqued my curiosity about the world and made me want to be stronger than a policeman. A week before my fifth birthday my father passed away. I was comforted by the fact that Pippi’s momma was up in heaven and her father was off sailing the great seas—and she was doing great! Pippi was fearless, walked backward, drank coffee, and had freckles just like me. I still dream of living in an old house like Villa Villekulla with a horse on the porch. Only I would have a potbelly pig in lieu of a monkey who wears pajamas and eats breakfast in bed.
Q: Paula, what inspired you to be an artist/illustrator/designer?
Paula: My grandmother. I sat in awe watching her draw, paint in oils, and sew clothes. Many of my favorite childhood memories are of sleepovers at her house. Side-by-side at our easels, we would paint bowls of fruit for hours. She tried to paint like Renoir, I tried to paint like her. My father’s ancestors also left a creative impression on me. On rainy days my grandfather would spin wild tales of their adventures building bridges, churches, and roller coasters around the world, and painting portraits of landscapes and royals. They are long gone now, but their stories still fill me with inspiration.
Q: What was your favorite thing about school as a kid?
Erin: I loved reading, writing poetry, singing in the choir, and putting on shows. I loved anything that I could put all of my feelings into. I was pretty shy in elementary school until a fabulous fifth-grade teacher helped me think about myself in a different light. He helped me see that I was funny, that I had something important to say, and that I was a hard worker. He appreciated my effort and I appreciated that. He was that caring teacher that all children need to have. As I moved into middle school and then high school, singing, dancing, and acting were the things that made me happy. If there was a talent show, a play, or a marching band, I was in it!
Paula: Mr. Foo. He was my art teacher, but not just any old art teacher—Mr. Foo was different. He was an artist, well-known in Malaysia for his stunning watercolor paintings. He believed in me and saw something in me that I had a hard time seeing in myself. Mr. Foo drew me out of my shell creatively and gave me a voice through paint, pencils, and yummy-colored pastels. I always wondered what happened to him. I can still hear his encouraging influence in the air. My other favorite hobbies were creative writing, swimming, and baton twirling.
Q: What was your least favorite thing about school?
Erin: The worrying. As a young child, I worried a lot. I worried that people wouldn’t be nice because I didn’t look pretty or wear the right clothes or have the right hairstyle. I worried about getting my feelings hurt. Looking back, I realize that I have a lot in common with the Weird series character Luisa. I also dreaded watching other children get bullied. I could feel what they were feeling.
Paula: Math, science, and bullies. My heart still pounds at the thought of a math teacher calling on me or hearing a bully shout out my name in the hall. Those years were really hard. I was a fragile kid and broke a lot of bones. I often felt left out sitting on the sidelines. I wish I had known Luisa and Jayla back then.
Q: Erin, what do you like best about school now as a teacher?
Erin: There is a Margaret Fuller quote that I love: “If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.” Teaching is about giving on so many levels. I like to think that the biggest gift I can give students is the knowledge that each and every one of them has the power to do great things now and in the future. And it’s always a two-way street. The candle lighting goes both ways. Whenever I am teaching, I always feel that I am doing something very meaningful.
Q: What makes you a “Free Spirit”?
Erin: I still have to be excused from the dinner table every now and then for giggling . . . I think that says it all. But if I had to elaborate on some other defining “free spirit” moments:
• Making up rap songs with my daughters and husband on family road trips
• Taking road trips without GPS
• Talking with my dogs, past and present; listening to their answers
• Riding the waves
• Teaching my daughters how to tap dance
• Jumping in my pool for a spontaneous swim in street clothes
• Sensing when someone needs a smile or a hug, and obliging
On a more serious note, I think a true Free Spirit is someone who is willing to stand up for what is right even if it isn’t considered the “cool” thing to do. Someone who follows her gut. Goes with her instinct. Listens. Someone who sees the good in people and has faith in the power of the human spirit. Someone who is fired up about living and giving. I would like to think that those qualities define me.
Paula: My curiosity. Being an old soul that sees the world through the eyes of a child. I really enjoy pushing my limits, feeling fear and swimming through it. My intuition is my guide and I look for beauty in the blah. I aspire to be a wise old woman who continues to expand and explore and play like a kid. Who knows, maybe I will live in a windmill full of trinkets from my travels and be a great teacher like Mr. Foo.
Q: What’s up next for you?
Erin: Right now, Paula and I are working on our next books for Free Spirit. We’re creating another series in the Bully Free Kids line, featuring boys as the main characters. You can find out more about our work at www.theweirdseries.com and on Facebook and Twitter: @erinfrankel1 and @PaulaHeaphy.
Learn more about the Weird Series.