Bridging the Gap III: Stepping into Chapter Books
Okay, full disclosure here. I'm a major fan of the Junie B. Jones series. I'm not ashamed to reveal that I still burst out laughing reading these books late at night!
I have long been an admirer of Barbara Park since she won our state (Tennessee) children's choice award for Operation: Dump the Chump back in the '80's. To me, she's one of the funniest writers around--funny, and yet genuinely respectful of the real issues of her characters in the way that, say, Beverly Cleary is with Ramona Quimby.
Junie B. Jones (her middle name is Beatrice, but she only likes the B.) begins the series as a kindergartner who is part Carol Burnett and part Lily Tomlin. She is a not-so-sophisticated five-year-old who nonetheless is quite self aware. In the first book of the series, Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus, Junie B. is terrified of riding the bus home on her first day at Kindergarten. Ever resourceful, Junie B. slips out of the bus line, hides out in a cupboard, and enjoys the pleasures of the now deserted classroom, library, and nurse's office until she realizes that the bathrooms are locked for the night and she's REALLY gotta go--"speedy quick." Junie B. knows what to do in an emergency. Sure, call 911! Well, this is an emergency, right? When the EMR vehicle roars up to the school, sirens blazing, Junie B. pleads for help and the custodian unlocks the girl's restroom, just in time!
During her first day at school we meet the characters which feature strongly in the rest of the Kindergarten series--Junie B.'s "bestest" friends, "that Grace," and "that Lucille" (who has a richie nana and terminally fluffy hair), "crybaby William," their teacher "Mrs.," the kindly custodian, Junie B.'s Grampa Frank and Granma Helen, and of course, Junie B.'s harried parents.
I can vouch for this series as a readaloud. Since each book can be read in about 45 minutes, I used the holiday titles with kids from first to third grade with resulting chuckles, guffaws, and howls of laughter through the year. On one of our more, er, exciting school days, we had a severe weather alert which ended with the power going out for the last half of the day. I had to lead a first-grade class out of the library and huddle us around a door in the Kindergarten hall where what passed for daylight illuminated the pages just enough for me to be able to read them. Despite parents coming and going to pick up their kids all around us, swirling clouds, and rumbles of thunder, I never lost the group's rapt attention to Junie B's latest adventure. Now that's a good book!
The Kindergarten and first-grade series (Junie B., First Grader) both follow Junie's progress through the school year, hitting such milestones as school carnivals, Valentine's Day, field trips, and, with the most recent book Junie B., First Grader: Dumb Bunny, a class party in which Junie B. has to dress like an Easter Bunny, a getup which definitely cramps her style! The official Accelerated Reader levels for the full series range from the middle of second grade to early third grade, making them accessible for most kids who are ready to move right into chapter books
Some of Junie B.'s critics snipe at her Junie-isms such as "I runned speedy quick" for their poor grammar, but I found that kids laughed and corrected them quietly as we went along. Another criticism is that readers in second and third grade are embarrassed to read about a lowly Kindergartner or first grader, but I found that the older kids, having just left behind fears of smelly school buses and killer farm roosters, enjoyed feeling a bit superior and yet empathetic at the same time.
I still remember those long ago days in Kindergarten and first grade and how world-shaking every experience seemed to me, so I guess I feel a bit superior and more than a little sympathetic with Junie B. Jones, too. Maybe those of us who love her see a part of ourselves in her naive but boundless joie de vivre.