Barbara Park, a former class clown who channeled her irreverence into the million-selling mishaps of grade schooler Junie B. Jones, has died. She was 66.
The author died Friday after a long battle with ovarian cancer, according to a statement released Sunday by Random House Books for Young Readers. Park was a longtime resident of Scottsdale, Ariz., where she lived with her husband, Richard, and raised two sons.
Starting in 1992, Park wrote more than 30 illustrated chapter books about the smart-mouthed girl with an ungrammatical opinion of everybody – her parents, her teachers, her friends and her classmate and enemy for life, May, who is so mean she won’t even acknowledge Junie’s middle initial (which stands for Beatrice: “Only I don’t like Beatrice. I just like B and that’s all,” Junie warned).
The books’ titles alone were windows into Junie’s slangy mind: Junie B. Jones and Her Big Fat Mouth, Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus, Junie B. Jones and That Meanie Jim’s Birthday. Junie was stuck in kindergarten for years before Park advanced her to the next class, starting with Book 18 and Junie B., First Grader (at Last!).
“I don’t have a problem being six years old in my head,” Park once explained during an interview with barnesandnoble.com. “It’s almost embarrassing; if I’m talking to librarians or teachers who know my books and they say, ‘How do you do this?’ It’s not a stretch.”
“I find that when I’m struggling to think of how a 6-year-old would feel about something, I just have to go right down to the common denominator, find the simplest way that you can look at an object or a problem, and not muck it up with all of the stuff that adults do and over-analyze,” she said.
Park’s books sold more than 55 million copies just in North America, according to Random House, and the series was adapted into a popular musical theater production.
Junie B. inspired much laughter among families, and a few frowns. Parents and educators occasionally objected to Jones’ personalized language and cheeky ways, worrying that she was a bad influence on her fans. The series sometimes appeared on the American Library Association’s list of “challenged” books.
Born Barbara Tidswell in Mount Holly, N.J., Park remembered herself as a troublemaker who knew well the path to the principal’s office. She had actually planned to become a teacher, majoring in education at the University of Alabama, but a year of being a student teacher for 7th graders convinced her that any further classroom experiences should be confined to paper.
Park would cite The Catcher in the Rye as an early literary influence and also credited the books of Judy Blume with inspiring her to write for children, and to make the stories funny. On Sunday, Blume praised Park for getting kids to read and recalled that some would confuse her with the title character of Park’s books.
“I’m Judy B. and lot of kids just assumed I was Junie B. Jones and had written the books,” Blume told The Associated Press. “I’d always say, ‘I didn’t write them, but I wish I had.’ ”
Besides the Junie B. Jones series, Park also wrote picture books, novels for middle school students and even a Hallmark greeting card, an “insulting” birthday message about getting old. She was a frequent winner of the Children’s Choice Award who never did bother to write a novel for adults.
“I’m not actually sure I’m grown-up enough for grown-up books,” she once explained.
Park helped found a charitable organization, Sisters in Survival, to raise money for women with ovarian cancer. Random House announced that contributions can be made here.