One of Barbara Park’s popular series, Junie B., First Grader (at last!) is well-written and aided by engaging illustrations by Denise Brunkus. Originally published in 1992, the book became a children’s classic which has been beloved by children, parents, and teachers. One dedicated educator and blogger even develops her teaching philosophy around the creative, adventurous whimsy of the protagonist, Junie B, and even includes ideas for a coffee cup with excuses already written on it—just in case other spirited first-grade students need to justify staying awake (Coolley, 2011).
The plot is not imaginative or risky. Junie copes with the changes she encounters in her social and school life- complete with new teachers and new experiences with friends. Critics warn that too many wild, young girls already fill children’s literature, citing the examples of Pippi Longstocking and Ramona Quimby (“Children’s-Lit Girls Gone Wild”, 2007, p.18). Unlike Pippi and Ramona, Junie shows hostility mainly through head-butting games and other typically-masculine-but-harmless ways. This contrast is particularly clear as Junie’s friends change and interact with her own changes.
Junie could be a girl of any of the modern decades. Since she retaliates against the social norms of language, her speech is devoid of many of the popular phrases which date a setting. Technologies and innovations are rarely mentioned since her entertainment springs from her own creativity, which does not require detail. Park opens with details which invite the reader into the rebellious but accommodating Junie’s mind, providing an instant window into her personality. Anxious about a new teacher and her best friend and schoolbus-seat-sharer replacing her, she overcomes her fear of the unknown when it is revealed that she needs glasses. Regardless of critics’ conclusions about her personal qualities, Junie’s character has reached the upper echelon of children’s literature favoritism and has been featured in over 25 books (Ratzan, 2005).
More than the use of a realistic writing font for Junie’s journal entries and more than the use of simple spoken words and some written misspelled words, Park (2001) includes some of the singular examples of syntax which the older student has already learned to reduce. For example, Junie tells us: “I did a sigh” (p.2). Some parents were less-than-thrilled about Junie’s stunted vocabulary and strange syntax. In a 2008 interview, Park responded to the concerns, saying “I’ve never had to answer teachers’ concerns about Junie-speak. Educators just get it. They know that fictional literature plays a whole different role in children’s lives than a book of grammar or a basic reader.” She also added that she had been a loquacious first-grade student, constantly getting into trouble (“BARBARA PARK”, 2008). Ordinarily, this passive writing voice obstructs books, but it is an endearing example of breaking general stylistic rules to create a powerful impression and a likable connection to a book’s characters. The power of words is a theme within the book itself, as Junie relates both in her criticism of journal-writing and in her description of her friend’s two new friends with fancy new names- Camille and Chenille (Park, 2001, pp. 9-11). These connections demonstrate the connection between culture, language, and power in ways which the first-grade student can relate to. Ratzan (2005) linguistically analyzes the chapter book and concludes that several complex and formative features of word comprehension are subtly included: case-making, repetition, and reduplication, specifically. Furthermore, the author highlights the growing research base and acceptance involving the educational usage of Dr. Seuss books which contain some of the same features (p. 37).
The chapter book carries the enthusiasm of its heroine, Junie, who narrates the book in two different first-person forms: journal-writing and narration. For this reason, the book can speak frankly and irrationally to convey the emotions hidden under the limited vocabulary of a first-grade student. Interestingly, the illustrations give the impression that the reader is the student in the back of Junie B.’s class, but these different perspectives blend easily and enhance the excitement of the events and the reader’s acceptance of the teacher as “Mr. Scary” and of the classroom as an uninspired setting for such an imaginative child to learn (Park, 2001).
Despite the criticisms against the book’s lackadaisical protagonist, it makes seven to ten-year-old students comfortable, confident, and willing readers and demonstrates that a healthy dose of self-esteem may lead them to make unconventional choices which are true to their hearts. While the teachers struggle against Junie’s singular phrasings, her descriptions of a “mybrain headache” or “fusstration” are more emotive than the proper forms of those words (Ratzan, 2005, p. 33). In short, Park encourages students to come to terms with their own choice of words and emotions- without embarrassment. Education need only go so far as to provide the knowledge and skills necessary for students to succeed—not change the elements of a student’s personality which make them unique. Park’s characterization of Junie B. makes her- and the lessons she has to teach her fellow first-graders- unforgettable.
BARBARA PARK. (2008). Instructor, 117(4), 72.
Children’s-Lit Girls Gone Wild. (2007). Time, 170(7), 18-19.
Coolley, S. (2011). First grader…at last! Retrieved from <http://firstgraderatlast.blogspot.com/>. Web.
Park, B. (2001). Junie B.: First grader (at last!). Random House Children’s Books: New York, NY. Print.
Ratzan, J. S. (2005). “You Are Not the Boss of My Words”: Junie B. Jones, Language, and Linguistics. Children & Libraries: The Journal Of The Association For Library Service To Children, 3(3), 31-38.