Barbara Park, creator of the loveable and impish children’s book character Junie B. Jones, died on Friday, November 15, after a seven-and-a-half-year battle with ovarian cancer. She was 66 years old. Junie B. Jones, who first appeared in 1992, is featured in more than 30 books that have sold more than 55 million copies—making the character as familiar a girl in children’s literature as Ramona, Pippi, or Eloise.
“Junie B Jones has remained a favorite with young readers,” says Barbara Moon, youth services consultant at the Suffolk Cooperative Library System on Long Island, NY. “Filled with humor and heart, this series is an endearing and enduring classic for early readers.”
The first book in the series, Junie B Jones and the Super Smelly Bus, introduced Juniper Beatrice “Junie B.” Jones, an irreverent kindergartener. Park once admitted in an interview that she and Junie share a few of the same personality traits; when she was in first grade, Park was sent to the principal for talking. Park said she enjoyed writing the series in the first person and confessed, “for some of us ‘grown-ups’ the hardest thing about being an adult is the pressure of always having to act like one.”
Junie B. and Park have had their controversies. In 2004, Park was designated as one of the American Library Association’s (ALA) Most Frequently Challenged Authors, and, in 2009, the “Junie B. Jones” series came in at #71 on the ALA’s list of the Top 100 Banned or Challenged Books from 2000–2009. The reasons cited for the challenges were poor social values taught by the books and Junie B. not being considered a good role model due to her “mouthiness” and use of bad spelling and grammar.
“Junie B. Jones often made teachers of language arts cringe with her ‘bestest’ and ‘funnest,’” Lisa Von Drasek, curator of the Children’s Literature Research Collections, University Of Minnesota, tells School Library Journal. “My advice to concerned parents was to lighten up. Early readers relished being just a tad ahead of Junie in knowing the correct grammar and enjoyed Junie’s exuberant style.“
Susan Polos, school librarian at Mount Kisco Elementary School in New York and a current member of the Newbery Award selection committee, thinks that Junie B. is “actually an excellent role model for transitional readers. After all,” she says, “well-behaved women seldom make history and Junie B. is ready to take on the world.” Books in the series fill two full shelves in her school library “but at this point in the year, most are not in the library but in the hands of children,” she says.
Barbara Park was born Barbara Tidswell in Mount Holly, New Jersey, on April 21, 1947, to Doris and Brooke Tidswell. She attended Rider College and the University of Alabama in pursuit of career in education, but decided to use her sharp wit to write for children. She married Richard A. Park in 1969 and they had two sons, Steven and David. She spent most of her adult life in Arizona.
After several rejections, Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers acquired her first manuscript, Operation: Dump the Chump, and two others. Don’t Make Me Smile was published first, in 1981, followed by Operation: Dump the Chump and Skinnybones, both published in 1982. Knopf also published a sequel to Don’t Make Me Smile in 1989: My Mother Got Married (And Other Disasters). In all, Park wrote more than 50 books, most of which were for middle-grade readers.
A 30-minute stage production of Junie B. Jones, for which Park wrote the script, has traveled around the country courtesy of Theatreworks; the show is part of its 2013–2014 repertoire.
Park founded her own nonprofit charitable organization with her husband, Sisters in Survival (SIS), dedicated to offering financial assistance to ovarian cancer patients. SIS is an all-volunteer organization and all donations go directly to women struggling with ovarian cancer. Park’s family will continue to run SIS after her death; donations can be made online.