Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Why I’m for Junie B.

The New York Times’ article “Is Junie B. Jones Talking Trash?” discusses reactions to the misspellings and errors in Barbara Park’s 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 isn’t 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 children’s 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 children’s 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 NCTE’s 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 you’ll 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. I’m for Junie B!

I’m not saying that I would read the books unexamined. I’d 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. What’s 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.


Rick Ayers said...

I agree with Traci Gardner. The New York Times article simply perpetuates the silly panic about standard (power) English. Yes, there is a kind of English which gets you good grades and opens doors; but we live in a diverse and delightfully creative society. Kids can talk like kids – and even read others who talk like them – without being ruined. Language is like culture – human, creative, bendable, subversive, and ever-changing. That’s why we have Mark Twain and Alice Walker and Jonathan Safran Foer delighting us with the vast possibilities of language. I shudder to think of all the parents of first graders who are correcting their children’s language with visions of Harvard admissions dancing through their heads.

Anonymous said...

Shudder on Rick! We corrected our child's grammar from the time she began to speak. It was an automatic act. It was not with any vision that she may attend Harvard. It was out of respect for the language we know. It was like any other behavior we taught her.

Junie B. represents one segment of society. Not all kindergarteners use "me" instead of "I." The author tries to present a realistic picture and should not be criticized for representing a culture. When I read Traci's comments, I too thought of Twain and Walker. Since I happen to like the language standards in my culture, I insisted that my child learn them. She also learned that not everyone speaks or writes the same as she was taught.

I will continue to demand students use standard English in the classroom. I look at it this way. They will have choices once they leave the classroom. Hopefully learning the diversity of language will open doors for them.

Valerie said...

It's true that not all kindergarteners use "me" instead of "I". In fact when I read Junie B. to my girls (8 and 7) they giggle at the miscues, and often correct them, reinforcing their own grammar. But the grammar and misspellings are only a piece of Junie's B.'s bigger plot-feeling like a misfit, being uncomfortable at school-issues all students deal with. These issues are the reason Junie B. is so popular-all kids can relate.

People complain about declining literacy rates, and then rip books away from their kids because they don't meet their arbitrary standards. What a way to foster a love of reading.

dea c-c said...

I confess that I am not familiar with the Junie B. books, but I agree with Rick...as a teacher of literature and language, though I may have struggled through the dialects of local color, I appreciated their individuality as well as their significance in representing a group. To dismiss ideas (isn't that what text is really all about) because we don't "like" or "approve" of the way it is expressed is lack tolerance and respect for thought.

And yet another reality to recognize is the variety of voice that is inherent to most of us. When they were younger, my kids used to ask me to leave the teacher talk at school. I would hear myself talking to my young children as though I were addressing a group of senior AP students. Kids or should I say, young people learn from noticiing differences, be they significant or insignificant. Perhaps these Junie B. books could be the springboard to grammar lessons that would for the first time be engaging rather than disconnected drudgery!

A Large Slice of Cake said...

I'd also like to add that Junie B. is not the first child character with non-standard English, and not even the first one kids may encounter. Cookie Monster, anyone? I have a vivid memory of my father saying he didn't like that muppet because his speech pattern set a bad example, and my thinking, "That's dumb. I know you're not supposed to talk like Cookie Monster. He's just a character." People who worry that Junie dialect will sink in aren't giving kids very much credit!