The B. Stands for Beatrice, but Junie B. Jones Stands for my Childhood
Originally published in Grayleaf
The entirety of my childhood was spent wishing to grow up. Now, though, as I stand on the cusp of adulthood, I want nothing more than to go back to being a kid. Mere weeks before my senior year of high school, I sat on the edge of my bed, wondering how I had gotten so old so fast. I spied my old box set of Junie B. Jones books, their colorful spines offsetting the duller Young Adult novels I have accumulated over the years.
In a fit of nostalgia, I pulled the books down and thumbed through the well-worn pages. As my eyes scanned over the familiar words and illustrations, I remembered exactly why I longed once more for “loose feet” (a la “Junie B. Jones is (Almost) a Flower Girl”). Then, it struck me that it was wholly possible that these books shaped me into the person I am today more so than anything else I have ever read.
One thing that stands out to me, even now is that Junie B. is unique in her averageness. Without relying on exciting extenuating circumstances or magic, this series took seemingly mundane events (like, say, a trip to the salon or a ride on the school bus) and turned them into fantastical occurrences. There are no children living in abandoned train cars, nor tree houses that transport children to historical places in Junie B.’s world. And yet, every encounter she has seems entirely otherworldly; at least, it did when I first experienced these books as a wide-eyed seven year old. This taught me that everything can be magical in its own right. (I’m trying to relearn this. One thing that I’ve found is that as I have grown older, the world has lost its sparkle for me. No longer is everything an adventure as it once was. I do believe there is merit to tackling each day with a more childish, optimistic mindset, though, and that is where we all can learn from Junie B.)
The Junie B. Jones series brought a fresh voice to kids’ lit, which is all too uncommon in modern media. Far too often, books featuring children as protagonists fall into this trap of treating their characters as either whiny babies or miniature adults. Junie B. Jones does neither, and instead the books were told beautifully and truthfully through a childlike lens. Everything Junie B. says, all of her runned’s and Cattle-Act’s made perfect sense to me as a child, despite not being technically correct. No moral was ever shoved down my throat, either, aside from the basic, “Be a good person.” In fact, Barbara Park herself spoke out against the notion that a “children’s book can be measured only in terms of the moral lesson it tries to impose or the perfect role models it offers,” saying that “a book is of extraordinary value if it gives the reader nothing more than a smile or two.” This, in turn, allowed the series to never come across as either babyish or condescending, but rather as a whimsical piece of literature that kids as well as, dare I say, adults could enjoy.
What Junie B. did do was grow. From precocious kindergartner to “grown up” first-grader, she grew not only as a character, but also (to me, at least) a person. She slowly began to correct her speech, and she became less childish in thought, while still maintaining her personality. Despite many parents’ distaste for the books due to its use of vocabulary such as “dumb”, “stupid”, and “hate”, as well as the terrible grammar, I believe that the usage of such improper language skills only enhances Junie B.’s character arc. Without seeing exactly how bad Junie B. started out, we would never get to see her fully develop her conversational and social skills. I learned that it was okay to make mistakes as long as you learned from them and changed your path later. Since she started off fairly bratty, her growth into a more mature little girl also helped me develop my personality and skills in and out of the classroom.
Junie B. Jones taught me a lot about growing up that I have kept with me, even though I am now much older than Junie B. ever ended up being. As a child who wanted to be a doctor and a teacher and a veterinarian and an author (and this is just the short list), I fell right in with all of Junie B.’s numerous aspirations. From “beauty shop guy” to a lunch lady, she was never shy about what she wanted to be. And no matter what, she always went after what she wanted. Whether it was simply being captain at field day or a flower girl, Junie B. showed me that you have to at least try to reach your goals, even if it isn’t very fun trying to get there. Not to mention the fact that she, even at a young age, did not put up with any bull about boys and girls. “Girls can be anything boys can be,” she stated matter of factly, citing both Sesame Street and Oprah as her reasoning for this idea. That was good enough for me, and thus became the rhetoric I used whenever my brothers left me out of games, and later, when arguing that girls should be of more value in STEM fields.
The relationships Junie B. forms throughout the series also influenced my own relationships, be it with friends, “enemies”, and adults. First, her friendships are so accurate to my own experience that it is almost too accurate. My best friends, my own Lucille and That Grace, and I played all of the same games as children. We all were close with each other and helped each other out with everything. We also, like in the series, tried to complement each other, rather than compete against each other. (Not that either party wasn’t competitive, but it was less of a hero/sidekick relationship and more of a realistic competition that is more common in children’s books.)
How Junie B. reacts to people she does dislike also played out quite similarly in my own life. Despite initial dislike for characters such as Meanie Jim and May, she comes to realize that they are people with feelings too. As young children, we all go through stages with our own Meanie Jim’s, where we have to learn that even if we don’t like each other, we have to respect each other in order to gain respect in return.
Junie B.’s interactions with adults impacted me as well, although it was less about how she treated them, and more about how they treated her. I’m just going to say it, here: Junie B. Jones could a brat. She was sassy, disobedient, and sometimes downright rude to adults in her life. That said, adults still treated her with kindness and patience. They let her get away with just enough, and then, when she truly crosses the line, they punish her. In my formative mind, this showed me what kind of adults I wanted in my life; now, this shows me what kind of adult, parent or otherwise I want to be.
But I really believe that the most striking part of the series were the traits that Junie B. and I shared. Junie B. was outgoing, creative, and unashamedly, unapologetically herself. She wore whatever she wanted, said whatever crossed her mind, and was friends with whomever she wanted to be. She used “grown up” words and tried to act like a “grown up lady.” (And, I’ll admit, I’ve had more than my fair share of mishaps similar to Junie B., namely an incident involving scissors, toys, and an inevitable disaster that was hidden from my mother, but that’s a whole other story.)
These traits, however, these funny, quirky, girl-next-door similarities are not the important way that Junie B. spoke to me. No, the important parts of her were her negative traits. Her loudness, her bossiness, her impulsiveness. These are what stuck with me, because I was (am) that kid who couldn’t keep her mouth shut. I talked too loud, too fast, too much. I took control in all areas whether my brand of leadership was wanted or not, and I rarely took a second thought as to what I was doing. Like Junie B., I could be selfish, jealous, and rude. So, to see this part of me reflected on a page was, to say the least, life changing.
It is important to mention, too, that not only were these “negative” traits on display, they were never displayed in a negative light. They were never a lesson to be learned, never a moral to be gained. Rather, they were just a part of who Junie B. was as a person, and they didn’t make her any less kind or likeable, which was a revolutionary idea to me, the little girl who was always told to be quiet and not be so bossy.
I had never given much thought as to how much these books truly impacted me; I don’t think I ever realized how much of Junie B. I still carry with me to this day. I think (and truly hope) that I will always have a part of her in me. Sadly, Barbara Park passed away in 2013, after a lengthy battle with ovarian cancer; I never got the chance to thank her for shaping me into the person I am now. But, I believe that wherever she is, she ought to know anyways. Thank you, Barbara Park, for breathing to life this fabulous character. Thank you for your honesty, realness, and kindness in writing. Most importantly, thank you for Junie B. Jones.