The New York Times article “Is Junie B. Jones Talking Trash?” discusses reactions to the misspellings and errors in Barbara Parks easy-to-read chapter book series on the famous elementary school student. Books in the series follow Junie B., who narrates the stories in an authentic first-person voice. The article explains:
[S]he struggles with grammar. Her adverbs lack the suffix “ly”; subject and object pronouns give her problems, as do possessives; she usually isnt able to conjugate irregular past tense verbs; and word like funnest and beautifuller are the mainstays of her vocabulary.Adult readers expecting “correct” language use sometimes balk at Junie B.s language practices, banning the books from their childrens bookshelves.
This morning, I visited the local bookstore on my way to the office to try to figure out what the fuss was all about. Simply flipping through a few Junie B. books, I could see how parents and caregivers might be concerned. Out of context a sentence from Junie B., First Grader (at last!) like “Me and Herb walked to Room One from the bus” (22) stands out, especially when adult readers are accustomed to standard written English in childrens books. When I read a few pages of the books however, I quickly learned that Junie B. sounded like a perfectly normal kindergartener and first grader.
My mind wandered to NCTEs Position Statement On the Students Right to Their Own Language (1974). The position statement could just as easily be describing poor Junie B.s treatment by disapproving adult readers:
Members of NCTE and its constituent group, the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), became concerned in the early 1970s about a tendency in American society to categorize nonstandard dialects as corrupt, inferior, or distorted forms of standard English, rather than as distinct linguistic systems, and the prejudicial labeling of students that resulted from this view.Junie B.s nonstandard language use is labeled as “corrupt” and “inferior” by these adult readers and the entire series of books is dismissed. If youll forgive the rephrasing of the position statement, I, for one, prefer to affirm Junie B. Jones right to her own language—to the dialect that expresses her family and community identity, the idiolect that expresses her unique personal identity. Im for Junie B!
Im not saying that I would read the books unexamined. Id ask young readers to think about how language works in the books. I want readers to talk about how Junie B. speaks and writes and why she sounds like a real kindergartner and first grader. In my practice with older students, when students are given the chance to embrace language diversity and authentic language use, amazing things can happen.
The Junie B. Jones series presents a teachable moment. Whats important is that we teach students to revel in language diversity and their own language use—rather than teaching them censorship and a static vision of a language with only one correct form.