Happy Birthday Barbara Park!
Today would have been Barbara Park’s 74th birthday. Barbara Park was an award-winning children’s author of over 50 books. She was best known for her #1 New York Times bestseller book series featuring the beloved Junie B. Jones, a sassy and spunky kindergartener who is constantly getting into mischief.
Park was born on April 21, 1947 in Mount Holly, New Jersey. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Alabama with the goal of being a high school teacher. She quickly changed tracks when she realized her trademark brand of wit and humor was best channeled into children’s books. Like most writers, Park faced her fair share of rejection from publishing houses, until she sold 3 of her books to Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers. Her first book was published in 1981, and she continued to write book after book until her death in 2013.
The first Junie B. Jones book, Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus, was published in 1992. The series went on to win multiple awards. The books spent months at the top of the bestseller lists, were translated into several languages, and, 30 years later, continue to be a well-loved classic series read by people of all ages.
Sadly, being well-loved did not stop people from attempting to ban Junie B. Jones from classrooms and libraries. Junie B. Jones was listed on ALA’s Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books 2000-2009, and in 2004, Park was listed in ALA’s 10 Most Frequently Challenged Authors. We are used to seeing censorship attempts for heavy, controversial topics: drugs, LGBTQ+ themes, sexual content, religion, death, ect. But the Junie B. Jones series is aimed at young readers. She’s a kindergartener, worried about riding the bus on her first day of school and getting up to hilarious, albeit a bit questionable, antics. To what, exactly, are people objecting in these books?
Well, Junie B. is, wait for it, not a perfectly behaved child. She is loud and talks back to adults. She says words like “stupid” and “dumb”. She is mischievous and a little bit wild. She uses poor grammar. She can be rude and often a bit thoughtless. In other words, she is a five-year-old! As any parent, teacher, or person who has spent time around young people can attest, it is a rare child who is well-behaved all the time. They make mistakes, they say the wrong things, they get into trouble. Depicting them as anything else is doing a disservice to children, who look to the characters in books to affirm their thoughts, actions, and emotions. In response to the critiques of her beloved June B., Park says, “People act as if I’m teaching children how to blow up cats. The worst thing she does is maybe call someone stupid, but that’s just her being a 5-year-old. You’d hear worse than that walking across any playground! And when she acts out, kids who are reading it know that she’s doing something wrong.”
And despite her “flaws”, Junie B. Jones is also strong. She speaks her mind. She isn’t afraid to stand up for herself. She is funny and genuine. Children (and yeah, sometimes adults) should see that girls can exemplify these qualities AND also make mistakes. Boys are often depicted in children’s stories as being rambunctious and impulsive, but it is somehow expected that they can, and will, mature eventually. Girls are rarely afforded that same courtesy. But Junie B. Jones unapologetically steers her own course. She does what she wants and says what she wants. Do some of her choices lead to negative consequences? Definitely. But children don’t need books where the characters are perfect and always make the right decisions. They need to see characters making mistakes and learning to respond to failure. They need to see characters being authentic and real. They need to see themselves reflected on the page. Seeing that authenticity on the page will encourage children to read more, to continue finding themselves in new characters and stories. To imagine themselves the heroes of their own lives. To be brave and true to themselves.
Park died on November 15, 2013, after a long battle with ovarian cancer. She leaves behind a legacy as bold as Junie B. Jones herself. When asked about writing books for kids, Park responded
“There are those who believe that the value of a children’s book can be measured only in terms of the moral lessons it tries to impose or the perfect role models it offers. Personally, I happen to think that a book is of extraordinary value if it gives the reader nothing more than a smile or two. In fact, I happen to think that’s huge.”
I do, too. Thanks for making us smile. Happy Birthday, Barbara Park!
Rebecca holds an MLIS from the University of North Texas and is a former teacher and school library consultant. Though not currently working in a library, she continues to fight against censorship and advocate for intellectual freedom rights, especially for children’s literature. When she’s not wrangling her three children, Rebecca enjoys reading, running, writing, and roaming the world.