Friday, July 27

Junie B. Jones: the funnest book or not worth a laugh?

Yesterday, the Times profiled the debate among parents over the popular children's series Junie B. Jones. Some parents like the 27-book series about a spunky little girl because their reading-resistant kids do, but others ban the books in their homes because the main character uses incorrect grammar. The Times bills this debate as a pedagogical difference, a "pint-size version of the lingering education battle between advocates of phonics, who believe children should be taught proper spelling and grammar from the outset, and those who favor whole language, a literacy method that accepts misspellings and other errors as long as children are engaged in reading and writing."

But I think the Times might be looking at the wrong culture clash. Instead, I see the books' publisher's response to a complaining parent as neatly summing up the debate; Random House said that "books for children don’t always have to be educational to be valuable."

At schools I've visited, I've met struggling readers who love Junie B. — they may even identify with her own language struggles, although as scholars point out, her "mistakes" actually correct irregularities in English. But they might just enjoy reading a book that's fun. Kids spend a great deal of time on cut-and-dry, grammatically correct stories that resemble those they'll see on standardized tests, and the high stakes of that literary form can't do much to facilitate a love for reading. Kids deserve to cut loose every once in a while, as adults do, with some light reading. And with the rise of what teacher Barbara Feinberg calls "problem literature" — books about kids confronting very adult misfortunes — there's value in just reminding kids that stories can make them laugh.

In the article, a sensible parent says she likes reading the books with her son, who enjoys them. "Sure, maybe Junie B. isn’t everyone’s cup of tea," she said. "But when she does things wrong or says things incorrectly, it provides an opportunity to talk about how things should be." Like all children's books, the Junie B. Jones books aren't meant to stand in for good teachers. But if parents are going to join schools in sucking the fun out of learning, then the books might have to stand in for them.

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