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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
Beloved by some and bemoaned by others, the children's book character is a hot topic because of her bad grammar and misbehavior.
By By Katherine Snow Smith, Special to the Times
Published August 14, 2007
Junie B. Jones convinced her kindergarten classmates that her mother gave birth to a monkey, brought fish sticks to school on pet day and had the whole school worried she was lost while she was safely hiding in the supply closet.
Now this fictional character from the children's book series that bears her name is in the middle of some real-life controversy. While many young readers, parents and librarians love her, some are anything but fans of Junie B. Jones because of her lapses in correct grammar, her name calling and her sassy behavior.
"I thought they didn't need to bastardize the English language as they did," said Lee Minicus, who was bothered by the books when he read a few pages to one of his granddaughters in St. Petersburg. "I didn't think it was necessary that a book devoted to children would use made-up words and extensions of verbs or nouns that are not really correct."
Other adults have taken to the Internet to lambaste Junie B. Jones on Web sites and in book reviews.
"She starts trouble everywhere she goes . . . she's an absolute monster," one parent wrote in a book review on Amazon.com. "To make matters worse, the entire series is rife with grammatical errors. . . . I have to hand it to (author) Barbara Park, though. Only in America can people sell excrement and get rich off of it." The reviewer added that she threw away her daughter's books.
"I think that children who are just learning to read should have GOOD examples of grammar and behavior. Junie B. offers neither of these," another reviewer wrote.
Park, author of the series, was selected as one of the American Library Association's 10 Most Frequently Challenged Authors along with Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and John Steinbeck in 2004. Her books, 27 so far in the series, have also consistently been on the New York Times children's book series bestseller's list.
What's the story?
A nonscientific survey of nearly two dozen parents in the Tampa Bay area found none who said they wouldn't let their kids read the books. Most are fans, though some have a few reservations.
"I think there's stuff out there that's a lot worse than this," said Hillary Coleman, a St. Petersburg mother whose 8-year-old daughter, Courtney, has read most of the Junie B. Jones books. "I felt (the poor grammar) was like literary or poetic license. We did have a discussion about how this is how some people speak even though it's not correct, and that slang is a part of language."
"I like how funny the books are," said 8-year-old Carson Eckhard of Tampa. "She talks with bad grammar, which can be funny if you can understand it enough. I think she's pretty much ahead of what a normal kindergartener does, not academically, but she sort of knows a little bit more about what's going on and she knows some mean names."
Though Junie B's grammar and her lapses in good judgment make Carson want to read more books, she isn't tempted to follow the bad example. "She has a boyfriend and I think she's really too young for that and she talks back to people and you shouldn't do that," she said.
"The reason I like them is she does bad things and it kind of teaches kids what will happen if you do bad things," said Sykes Eckhard, Carson's twin sister. "Sometimes they are a little hard to read because she says things like 'I sawed' instead of 'I saw' and she calls her grandmother by her first name."
Still, Carson is hooked. "I have a checklist in my brain and I've read all but one," she said. "They are my favorite series."
2 schools of thought
Critics complain that the books are aimed at beginning or early readers who can be confused by incorrect grammar. It's part of the phonics vs. whole language battle. Parents and educators who back "phonics" think children should be taught correct spelling and grammar from the outset, while those who prefer "whole language" allow misspellings and other mistakes as long as children are excited about reading and writing.
"It wasn't a great book for her to start reading when she was trying to make sense of something and it's not actually a real word," said Caroline McCoy, whose oldest daughter, Rose, 8, started reading the Junie B. Jones books early in first grade. So she set them aside for about six months, then let Rose go back to Junie B. Her younger sister, Ellie, 7, now reads them, too.
"If we're going to criticize grammar there would be a lot of books that would be banned. I don't see any problem having them in our media center at all," said Barbara Rooks, supervisor of media for kindergarten through fifth grade in Hillsborough County schools. "If you can hook them with these books it's going to hook them on reading, then they move on to something else."
Some books are a little worse than others in terms of Junie B.'s name calling and antics, said Charlotte Anderson, a Pinellas Park mom who used to teach 3- to 6-year-olds and read the books aloud to her students. (Her 8-year-old daughter, Catie, is a current fan.)
"There aren't many chapter books a 3-year-old will sit still for. I think they are very entertaining," she said. "But there were certain Junie B. books I wouldn't read in my class." Some parents did voice concern to Anderson about the grammar, but none asked her to quit reading.
Kris Van Olst of St. Petersburg has read the books to his three daughters, ages 5 to 8.
"Sometimes I would change the words or skip over something just to use the words that were appropriate to make it easier to understand," he said. "I think they would make a great children's TV series or something. They have good wit."
Minicus, the grandfather who thinks Junie B. doesn't set a good example for his granddaughter, is far from a fan but also doesn't think the books should be banned.
"I don't know that I'd encourage children to use those books at the exclusion of others, but I would not say that I don't want them put in a school library," he said, adding with a laugh: "Emma read them and she turned out fine."
Information from the New York Times was used in this report. Katherine Snow Smith is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg.