Books Are Pretty

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Junie B. Jones.

My oldest son has reached that awkward age where he's too old for board books, but not a skilled enough reader to read chapter books on his own. We wandered around in a literary desert for a bit, until my friend Portia recommended we start up with Barbara Park's Junie B. Jones series. I'd been avoiding serial books because it seemed like so many of them were insufferable Nickelodeon or Disney tie-ins. I'm the first to admit, we're big fans of Spongebob Squarepants and Bear in the Big Blue House, but the revelry we enjoy onscreen falls crashingly flat when translated to the page. Because both my children beg for multiple readings of books they love at one sitting, I have to opt for books I can tolerate reading several times without losing my patience with the stilted, ham-handed, often cloying prose that often accompanies books written to cash in on the popularity of another medium rather than being written with the purpose of simply telling a good story.

Portia was dead right - the Junie B. Jones are great fun. The Junie B. Jones series, 22 books so far, chronicle the beginning school years of an impetuous, bull-headed little girl. Told from Junie B.'s point of view, Park tackles the school life of a Kindergarten/first grader, with attention to detail that I am very happy to see. On Junie B.'s first day of Kindergarten, related in Junie B. and the Stupid, Smelly Bus, Park writes:

...Mrs. took our class on a walk around the school. Everyone had to find a buddy to walk with.
My buddy was Lucille. We held hands.
The boy I can beat up was right in front of us. His buddy was that Jim.
That Jim I hate.
The first place we walked to is called the Media Center. My mother calls it a library.

My son's mother calls it a library, too. With this one small paragraph, Junie B. gains the trust of her young readers. Not only does Park normalize new places like media centers to help young schoolchildren adjust to their new lives, but the placement of such a perfect little detail, "My mother calls it a library," enables the child to identify with Junie B. - if she's going to be okay, then the young reader will probably be okay, too.

As far as readability goes, Park throws in enough winks toward the adult reader, in the way that was mastered by the late Louise Fitzhugh (author of the beyond brilliant Harriet the Spy books), which makes curling up with your six-year-old an especially good treat.

In Junie B. Jones and the Yucky Blucky Fruitcake, Junie B.'s parents get lost in their own hilarity, much to the annoyance of Junie B.

"See it, Daddy? See the cake I won!"
Daddy looked at my cake in shiny aluminum.
Then he looked at Mother.
He shook his head very slow. "No," he said. "Don't tell me."
Mother rocked back and forth on her feet.
"Yupper," she said.
Daddy closed his eyes. "You mean she picked..."
"A fruitcake," said Mother.
I jumped way high in the air again. "Yea! Yea! A fruitcake! I picked a fruitcake! I picked a fruitcake! And now I would like to see what it looks like. Only I can't even lift this big guy off the ground."
Daddy picked it up and set it on the table.
I pulled off the aluminum foil.
Then I just stared and stared at that thing.
It was brownish and slickish. And there was slippery shine on the top.

"It got rotted," I said very quiet.
Mother smiled a little bit. "It's not rotten, Junie B.," she said. "That's just the way fruitcakes look."
I looked even closer at it. "Yeah, only I don't even see any fruits on this gunky thing."
Daddy pinched off a little piece for me to look at. He showed me some hard green things. And some hard yellow things. And some hard red things. he said those were the fruits.
I put my tongue on a green one.
"Yuck!" I said. "Bluck!"
..."I never even want to taste this yucky blucky thing again," I told him.
Mother smiled. "But that's the great thing about fruitcake, Junie B.," she said. "You never actually have to eat it. Because it never goes bad."
"Fruitcake has been known to last for years," said Daddy. "And if you ever get tired of it, you just put a bow on it. And you give it to someone you hate for Christmas."
Then him and Mother laughed and laughed. Only I didn't even get that joke.

In the series, Junie B. covers all the ground one expects a Kindergartener/First Grader to cover, from the first day of school to calling Emergency 911 to new baby brothers to the heartbreak of being excluded from a classmate's birthday party. Because Junie B. never reacts in an overly precocious way - making the same bull-headed mistakes that a typical 5 or 6-year-old would make, children get totally sucked in.

When Junie B. gets locked out of the girls' bathroom at school, she calls 911 to help her. (Using the logic of a 5-year-old, calling 911 was the reasonable thing to do, because 911 is an emergency service, and she was having a potty emergency.) My son, who had already gone through the experience of making an unwarranted phone call to 911, became very agitated over her Very Serious Crime, and actually lost sleep over it. For the next few weeks, we read our new Junie B. Jones books in the afternoon, rather than as bedtime stories.
Junie B. Jones series
written by Barbara Park
Random House
Junie B.'s web page

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