“Exceptional” Power of Story in Junie B. Books for Kids

27 07 2007

As in “exception to the rule” — why are the Junie B. kids’ books so infuriating to so many standard-bearing parents and teachers, really?

Is it because Junie B. breaks the standard rules she’s been taught, or –aha! — it is really because Junie B. FOLLOWS the simple rules quite literally, without exception and thereby makes it laughable?

I’m thinking it’s an ingenious paradox, that the author accomplishes the former because her heroine does the latter.

To follow Junie B.’s own exceptional lack of exception, let’s put it this way:

Simplistic rules marching us all to one prescribed end is wrong. Calling it education is wronger. Church and state enforcing it on little kids is wrongest.

Parents and teachers who define their own purpose in life as following and imposing rules without exception, perpetuating standards through compulsion and restriction, refusing to make exceptions as in zero tolerance policies, demonizing intellectuals — and liberal arts and relativism and diversity of thought and incontrovertibly complex reality itself — must find it threatening when their own young children readily recognize and laugh at the obviously inadequate results of such a childish, nascent world view.

What makes it a paradox imo, is that if you WERE one of those folks, you wouldn’t be able to understand and consider, much less accept, this explanation of why you felt threatened by the Junie B. books. Your own slavish devotion to rules without exception will make you concoct some fictional alternative in keeping with your simplistic rule-following world view, or else your head might explode.

I liked how this blogger mom and former librarian put it:

While I don’t necessarily find the idea of a “regularized” English appealing–I love the language’s exceptions and quirky difficulties, the things that turn it into a bit of a puzzle–I do think the concern about Junie’s language is rather narrow-minded. How many Englishes are there? Anyone who thinks there’s just one is dreaming.

The idea that there should be just one is frightening. Grammar and language are a lot more fluid than many people understand, and that’s a good thing. There’s a lot of uncertainty in language, a lot of flexibility, and that’s what keeps it alive and gives it its charm (in the sense of magic).

I’m more interested in the creative use of language than correct usage, and the most expressive way to say a thing is not necessarily the most grammatical. I think most kids (those I spoke to when I worked in the public library, anyway) recognized that her language is an expression of Junie, not something to emulate.
Grammar is not sacred, but I think expression is.

And I liked Mark Liberman’s “Language Log” higher-order thought, that the NYT story itself breaks the rules and flouts convention by describing this whole education and learning controversy as a “phonics” problem, which it’s not. (Maybe they were trying to keep their own heads from exploding in conflict with their slavish devotion to teacher unions and athletic association rules?)

From yesterday’s NYT story:

Jill Ratzan, a doctoral student in library and information science at Rutgers University, said Junie B.’s English is actually more complex and interesting than most realize — and possibly more “correct.”

“I believe ‘perfect grammar’ is any grammar that works,” said Ms. Ratzan, whose paper on the series, “You Are Not the Boss of My Words,” was published in the journal Children and Libraries in 2005. “Junie B is actually following the precise rules of English. What she’s not following are the exceptions.”

. . .Ms. Ratzan also notes that the trend of language’s evolution is toward this kind of regularization, which means Junie B. might be teaching children the English of the future. But, she said, “Just because they read ‘funnest’ doesn’t mean they’ll learn to say that. I’ve never heard a kid speak in a Yorkshire accent because they read ‘The Secret Garden’ or say ‘Have you any wool?’ ”


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6 responses

27 07 2007
Gem

I don’t have a terribly strong aversion to her, but Junie smacks me as bratty and selfish, to be frank. Having said that, my kids enjoy the books and we talk about places where maybe it might be better to be more considerate or tactful.

27 07 2007
JJ

Heck, bratty and selfish are good and sufficient reasons imo! Junie B. wasn’t on our radar so I don’t know, but DW in the Arthur cartoons uses some of the same little-girl grammar and she’s pretty selfish — Young Son adores that show though and I don’t mind it. (But maybe if she were the main character, I would get too much of her?)

Stupid — especially leering and bathroom humor — is something we’ve always avoided in books and movies, so we never picked up the Captain Underpants books to try them out, and I don’t turn on the Rugrat cartoons because I think they’re just drawn ugly.

But I haven’t tried to ban anything even in my own house, much less for other people’s kids. 🙂

As an aside, we just came from opening day of the Simpsons new movie and we all thought it was very funny, plenty above stupid. (If you go, stay to the very end for a few more little scenes and read all the credits too, for more jokes that most children and teens will never have the patience or reading interest to sit through and get. See, reading well DOES pay off, kids!)

But Gem makes the more important point, whatever the story — do it WITH your kids and then talk, talk, talk about anything and everything! 🙂

27 07 2007
JJ

Hey Gem, how are you feeling these days? Handling the heat okay? (That was the worst for me, at least in Florida.)

28 07 2007
Not June Cleaver

Junie’s grammar makes me nuts! Wendy’s is giving away recorded Junie B. Jones books in their kids meals this month, so we have been listening to them in the car. I can’t stand the way she uses wrong verb tenses and superlatives. Pet peeve of mine. I certainly hope it is not the “English of the future” as Ms. Ratzan proposes.

As for her claim that kids won’t use the language seen in books, I remember quite clearly writing a story in first or second grade and beginning a sentence with the word “presently.” The teacher marked it with red and I was mad. Lots of classic literature used that form of language, so I was just following the examples I had seen.

In any case, I certainly haven’t banned them from my home or suggested anyone else do that. We have about 8 Junie B. Jones books on the shelf. I like to point out the mistakes as a grammar lesson. Geez, talk about taking the fun out of reading! 😉

28 07 2007
JJ

It is clear to me then, NotJC, that you have a more complex understanding of language learning as connections, patterns and relationships (with all its caveats and exceptions) than the pious book-banners and persnickety red pen wielders.

The kids and I love to talk about that sort of thing, for example driving to musical theatre rehearsal yesterday — “beheading” came up again, since it figures in the plot of The Scarlet Pimpernel. SImple, literal rules are boring and just not adequate for fully developed higher order thought and communication. We were pondering why it isn’t DE-heading rather than BE-heading, because BE- words usually mean to have or take on, add on, apply, acquire or come under the control of something, rather than to NOT have, to lose or take away.
Be-ribbon
Be-devil
Be-smirch (Junie B. might think saying “smirch” over and over was the funnest!)
Be-gone

So why doesn’t behead mean to HAVE your head? An if DE-capitate means to lose it, then BE-capitated should mean to have it or get it back, or to get a leader or figurehead, as in being put under the charge of someone like a school headmaster or committee head? (That was Young Son’s suggestion)

29 07 2007
freerangelife

I’m so glad to hear that the NYT is on top of this story. What this country really needs, though, is a hard-hitting piece around parental policies on Walter the Farting Dog.

Actually, I tried three or four times to read the NYT piece but my brain kept baulking at “her all-day princess-theme party for her graduation from preschool….”

I finally managed to urge it on past that bit of mind-boggle, only to find myself gasping at the sheer offensiveness of a father informing, via the New York Times, a gift-giver that her gift to his child had been found unsatisfactory.

I’d barely caught my breath when I ran right smack into “required summer reading at many elementary schools.”

I didn’t have it in me to go on.

Now I have this song stuck inside my head:

teachers to the left of me
parents to the right
here I am, stuck in the middle of School
here I am, stuck in the middle of School…..

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