Barbara Park, creator of Junie B. Jones, dies at 66

The New York TimesNovember 18, 2013 

Barbara Park, whose children’s books starring Junie B. Jones, a 6-year-old dispenser of abundant opinions, Runyonesque wisecracks and dubious syntax, have sold tens of millions of copies and delighted all but the most grammatically puritanical parents and teachers, died Friday at her home in Scottsdale, Ariz. She was 66.

The cause was ovarian cancer, her publisher, Random House Children’s Books, said.

Aimed at beginning readers and illustrated by Denise Brunkus, the Junie B. series comprises nearly 30 titles. The books have sold more than 55 million copies in North America, according to Random House, and have been translated into a dozen languages.

If almost any of Ginger Rogers’ tough-girl characters had been portrayed as a child, she would have been much like Junie B. In the very first book in the series, “Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus” (1992), Park’s young heroine bursts onto the page fully and irrepressibly formed:

“My name is Junie B. Jones,” she declares in the opening sentence. “The B stands for Beatrice. Except I don’t like Beatrice. I just like B and that’s all.”

At the start of the book, Junie is about to begin kindergarten, which, as she sagely observes, “is where you go to meet new friends and not watch TV.”

Park kept Junie in kindergarten for a nearly a decade, through a string of predicaments set forth in “Junie B. Jones and the Yucky Blucky Fruitcake” (1995), “Junie B. Jones Has a Monster Under Her Bed” (1997), “Junie B. Jones Is Not a Crook” (1997) and other titles.

Then, in 2001, came a watershed moment: “Junie B., First Grader (at Last!).”

As reviewers often remarked, it is no small trick for an adult to write convincingly in the first-person voice of a child, but Park said that to her surprise, Junie’s voice came almost unbidden.

“Within the first four sentences, I discovered I had a character who hated her middle name,” she told the trade magazine Publishers Weekly last year. “By the second page, I knew she was a wild child, who — big surprise — had not yet mastered the Queen’s English. And when I finally finished the book, I thought maybe I could write one or two more. I was a little low with my expectations, apparently.”

Junie’s diction is characterized by an imperfect grasp of English grammar: she favors superlatives like “bestest” and “funnest” and past tenses like “runned” and “thinked.”

While some parents and educators howled that Park was leading young readers into a den of syntactic iniquity, the widely prevailing view, as the trade publication Booklist wrote in 2002, was that the books were “sassy, hilarious and insightful.”

Barbara Lynne Tidswell was born on April 21, 1947, in Mount Holly Township, N.J. After attending Rider College in Lawrence Township, N.J., she earned a bachelor’s degree in history and political science from the University of Alabama.

Park began publishing children’s books in the early 1980s. She soon developed a reputation for handling weighty subjects with a light touch and often bittersweet humor.

Her first published book, “Don’t Make Me Smile” (1981), is the story of a 10-year-old boy whose parents are divorcing. In later titles, she explored remarriage, a grandparent’s descent into Alzheimer’s and, in “Mick Harte Was Here” (1995), the death of a sibling.

Park’s survivors include her husband, Richard A. Park, whom she married in 1969; two sons, Steven and David; a brother, Brooke Tidswell; and two grandchildren.

Among her other books are “Junie B., First Grader: Boss of Lunch” (2002) and “Junie B., First Grader: Boo — and I Mean It!” (2004).

The most recent title in the series, “Junie B., First Grader: Turkeys We Have Loved and Eaten (and Other Thankful Stuff),” appeared last year. It leaves Junie exactly where Park wanted her: forever 6.

“If I keep working her up the ladder, she’ll become responsible,” Park told USA Today in 2004. “I don’t want her to become cool, to be too good a citizen.”

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