Wednesday, March 29, 2017

WHY I LOVE JUNIE B. JONES (and Writing Plays for Young Audiences)

by Allison Gregory, Playwright
Allison Gregory

1. She isn’t afraid to look bad.
Junie B. says what’s on her mind, tries things that she will fail at, and doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about how she comes off. She is blatantly, boldly flawed. I wish I were half as awesome as her.

2. She speaks like children think.
Barbara Park, the late author, took a lot of flack for creating such a (to my mind) real character. I know parents who actually refused to let their children read the books; they feared their progeny would pick up Junie B.’s incorrect use of words and forever be saddled with a language deficit. What?! The way I see it? Junie B. is an expressionist: she seeks to present the world from her own, subjective perspective – that of an out-going, curious, confident 6/7 year-old. Her distortion of words for emotional, intellectual, or utilitarian purposes might be considered artistic if she were an adult artist. At the very least, they are entertaining malapropisms which generally convey meaning more accurately than standard “acceptable” language.

3. She made my daughter laugh harder than I ever heard before.
This was no small feat. Every parent knows the downside of reading to your child: once you find a book they love they will want to hear it ad nauseam. It is soul crushing; you will come to dread the nightly ritual, at least the part where you have to read what has become a mind-numbingly boring book for the eighthundredth time. That never happened with the Junie B. books, and believe me, we read them at least eight hundred times. Each. And there are, like, twenty-eight books in the series!
That’s, oh you do the math, that’s a lot. Somehow – not somehow, but through Barbara Park’s gifts and skill as a writer, the stories were always funny, gut-laugh-till-you-weep funny, every dang time. I still laugh at them, because they are still funny, twenty-plus years after the writing.

4. Junie B. stories make really great plays.
When I’m looking for a children’s book to adapt, I am most intrigued by stories that offer an inner dilemma with an outer obstacle. In other words, a moral quandary that will affect an action taken (or denied). In Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells!, there was a very clear and relatable, situation: Junie B. had unwittingly selected her nemesis May’s name for the classroom’s Secret Santa exchange – at a time when Tattletale May was being particularly unpleasant and annoying to Junie B. Add to that the fact that Junie B. didn’t even have enough cash to buy her family their gifts and the Squeeze-A-Burp she so desperately needed to have; what’s a first grader supposed to do, I ask you? Read the play, silly. With Junie B. is Not A Crook, our hero is similarly painted into a corner of her own making. She finds something at school that has value and obviously belongs to one of her schoolmates – but they were careless so it’s their fault for losing it and she should
be able to keep it, right? Right???

5. The stories are honest; the characters are real.
One reason I return to this series – and will continue to do so until someone arrests me, is that I trust these stories. The books are genuine, there is a singular truthfulness to each narrative that, no matter how hair-brained Junie B.’s antics, they never become ‘silly’. Funny, yes. Rash, wrong-headed, thoughtless, yes. Silly, never. However flawed her thinking there is always a compelling reason for Junie B. to do what she does, and there is invariably an unintended consequence that requires her to respond. Her actions cost her something; in that sense these stories feel very real to me. Yet, and this impresses me to no end, however dire the situation, however deeply she’s dug that hole, Junie B. manages to call up some unexpected well of goodness within, and disaster is mostly averted, the dilemma is resolved. That is what’s so engaging and joyful about these stories and Junie B. herself: her scrappy resourcefulness, her unbridled sense of right and wrong, her bull-in-a-china-shop
zest and imagination. Barbara Park got Junie B. so right because, well, she was Junie B. And luckily, I get to keep telling her stories.
                                                                     -Allison Gregory January 20, 2017 Austin


Catch Junie B., the funniest girl in room nine in JUNIE B. JONES IS NOT A CROOK, April 28-June 4, 2017.

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