In 1992, Barbara Park began what was conceived as a four-book series for Random House about the antics of a precocious and adventurous kindergartner named Junie B. Jones.
Park is one of today's funniest and most popular children's authors. In addition to the Junie books, she has written several middle-grade novels including Operation: Dump the Chump, Skinny-Bones and Mick Harte Was Here. She has received more than 40 awards, including the Parents' Choice Award in 1985 and the Library of Congress Book of the Year in 1987.
Park answered Barnes & Noble's questions from her home in Scottsdale, Arizona, where she lives with her husband and two sons.
How do you see the world through the eyes of six-year-old Junie B. Jones?
It's just one of the things that comes easily to me; I don't have a problem being six years old in my head. It's almost embarrassing if I'm talking to librarians or teachers who know my books and they say, "How do you do this?" It's not a stretch. I find that when I'm struggling to think of how a six-year-old would feel about something, I just have to go right down to the common denominator, find the simplest way that you can look at an object or a problem, and not muck it up with all of the stuff that adults do and over-analyze. You listen or look at something and try to see it in the absolute simplest way. Sometimes if Junie is wrestling with a word she doesn't know or an adult phrase, and she can't quite figure out the nuances, she just accepts it verbatim. And it's pretty easy, actually, when you do it that way as an author.
How do you come up with the books' storylines? And what makes them so beloved by both boys and girls?
When I started this series, I was reluctant because I couldn't imagine thinking of four stories for one character. I brainstorm a lot and try to think of a common theme. Most everything that happens to Junie happens to all kids, both boys and girls. They go through all of the same things: not getting invites to a birthday party or getting in trouble in school or having a crush on somebody. They're very common themes; what's difficult is getting a different angle. But generally it's just kids' themes rather than boys' or girls' themes.
Junie's use of the English language is such a fun element in the stories. Why do you think that works so well?
It gives her a clear voice, and she's the only one in the books that really misspeaks. Every once in a while Lucille will say "beautifulest" or something like that, but it's rare. It makes Junie a stronger character because every time she speaks, kids immediately identify with who's speaking. It makes her unlike anyone else in the story.
And she does it with a sense of innocence. In her naïveté, the things she says sound really funny. Kids are eager to laugh, and they don't care whether they're laughing at her or with her. They can look at her mistakes and laugh at them, because then they are sort of elevated: "Oh, I made that mistake when I was a kid, and I'm grown up now." All of her mistakes make her more real.
Do you plan to continue the series throughout Junie's elementary school years?
No, because I think what happens to all kids will happen to her. She'll start to grow up and get more conscious of being cool and saying the right thing. Society just has a way of inhibiting you, which is good and bad. It's why we've become a more polite and kinder place. But it also takes out some of the fun, especially as you watch kids grow up. They become afraid to ask questions that might seem stupid, and they don't want to be thought of as uncool. A lot of their initial outbursts are contained, or their curiosity isn't explored as much, and I think that would happen to Junie. I've written about girl characters who are still outspoken in fourth and fifth grade, but it's not the same sense of fun. I think Junie would actually have to lose that sense of humor that we've come to like about her, along with the fact that she just can't quite get hold of her personality yet. As she grows, she will, and that will take away something.
I think it's a pretty safe bet that she's not going to change that much in the first grade, but readers will see that her grammar has improved. It's just one small step and that's a good thing. But if she were in second, third and fourth grade you would see a whole different kind of personality emerging.
Kids, teachers and parents all love the Junie B. series. What makes it so special?
One thing about the books is that they make kids laugh. There are many reluctant young readers who haven't yet found books that make them laugh. In fact, I recently got a letter from a teacher who told me about a little boy in her class who was in the special reading group because he couldn't read and didn't want to learn. She introduced the class to the Junie B. series and it just struck a chord in him -- it was the laughing and the humor. The fact that Junie's not perfect and gets in trouble made him want to try to read the books. After several months, he was hiding the books in his desk and sneaking them out to read when he wasn't supposed to. And then he got moved out of the special reading program, because he became such a good reader from these books.
And it's just that: Junie's not perfect so kids identify with
her, and the books are funny so the reading gets you somewhere and
you can actually laugh out loud. You can hear yourself laugh, which
you never really thought you could do with a book at that age.
What was the book that most influenced your life?
The Catcher in the Rye. I was introduced to this book as a sophomore in high school. The idea that a fictional character could feel as real as anyone I had ever known, was such a stunning revelation it completely got me hooked on reading -- which, until that time, had not been
Tell us about some of your favorite books.
My criteria for what makes a book an official “favorite,” is based almost entirely on how desperately I don’t want the story to end. When I
think of how unhappy I was to find myself at the end of the following books, each of them has to be included in my list:
The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Princess Bride, A Prayer for Owen Meany, A Walk in the Woods, and
The Poisonwood Bible.
Who are your favorite writers?
Regarding children’s authors: Jon Scieszka is “funny” at its best. I envy Katherine Paterson’s truth and humanity. And I think Ted Geisel
was, quite simply, a genius.
Regarding adult authors, Barbara Kingsolver’s prose is inspired. She weaves her words so beautifully, there are times when it’s hard for me
to turn the page and leave a favorite passage behind.
What are you working on now?
These days I’m almost always working on something “Junie B.” Aside from planning more upcoming first grade adventures, I’m working on
a special Junie B. Jones journal in which both Junie B. and the reader get to write in the pages as “co-authors.” The premise is that Junie B. has
already filled out her part of the book, and now she is passing it on to the reader. This one was really fun for me.
As far as “non-Junie B.” projects, I’ve been trying to nag myself into starting a new middle grade novel for at least a year now. But, as of this
moment, I’m still happily ignoring myself.
What would you like to tell your readers about your daily life?
I live in the desert, so life is pretty laid back here. My husband and I love to hike. But recently, most of my free time has been spent trying to
teach my puppy Maggie to stop “retrieving” my toothbrush whenever I leave it on the bathroom counter.
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